Telenor head of Asia Petter-Borre Furberg shared with Mobile World Live (MWL) the parent company’s rationale behind its recent mergers and exits from four Asia-Pacific markets and his personal disappointment behind the company’s forced departure from Myanmar.

In an interview with MWL just days after Telenor Group closed a deal to exit Pakistan with a sale to e&-owned PTCL, Furberg (pictured above) explained the Norway-headquartered operator realised over the last five years that scale is vital within each market, noting “the growth that was helping us significantly through our first phase is flattening out”. 

The executive, previously chief of Nordic operations, returned to Asia as head of the region on 1 October.

With competition driving down prices, he noted operators must have a strong focus on efficiency and taking out costs, which is only possible by being the market leader.

“It isn’t sustainable in this industry to be in four-player markets, especially if the regulatory conditions are not making it easy for all operators to actually become profitable,” he stated, noting its parent set the goal to be number one in the markets where it operates.

When Telenor started in Asia, the company believed it would be possible to drive down costs sufficiently to make mobile service more affordable for everyone through global scale. “We strongly believed through scale across markets we would have advantages that others couldn’t.” 

To a large extent, he said Telenor was able to do this through leadership, culture, ways of doing business and sourcing, which has driven good results in this region and in the Nordics.

With the sale of Telenor Pakistan and mergers of its mobile units Digi (Malaysia) and dtac (Thailand), “we are executing on a strategy which has matured over a number of years”.

Furberg noted through the sale to PTCL it is facilitating a consolidation in the market which “we think is natural and necessary”.

In addition to assets in Malaysia and Thailand, its Bangladesh business Grameenphone is the largest by subscribers and registering attractive growth.

Bigger is better
Summarising the upside of its tie-ups in Malaysia and Thailand, he started by noting mergers are never easy, and they also fail because they are complicated. “So far they are progressing according to plan,” with both delivering dividends in line with what it promised.

The executive said this is proof why the mergers make sense. The big potential from the market consolidation move, he pointed out, comes from taking out costs.

“We’re at the beginning of building value within Celcom-Digi and True-dtac. The big value will come as the synergy initiatives actually create sufficient momentum.”

It also has plans to reduce staff levels, with short-term spikes in costs due to severance packages. The full impact of the moves are anticipated three, four or five years after the deals close.

Furberg acknowledged competition in the Malaysian market is still intense because there are five players, while in Thailand, now a two-player market after dtac combined with True Corp, competition is strong in mobile as well as broadband, after AIS acquired fixed-line and fibre assets.

As the first CEO of Telenor Myanmar, Furberg recalled the highs and lows of the market’s rapid opening up in 2013 and subsequent mass-market launch of affordable mobile service, and the company’s departure in 2022 due to violent crackdowns on protests and continued curbs on freedoms by the military government. 

“Myanmar for me personally was the best job that I’ve ever had. It felt unbelievably meaningful.”

Telenor was one of two international companies granted licences by the government to deploy nationwide greenfield networks, at a time when SIM cards cost $300 and coverage was extremely limited.

He shared the experience of receiving more than 100,000 applicants for some 700 positions, with roughly 10,000 from international applicants. “People from around the world wanted to be part of building this country and supporting the people that had suffered so much to 50 years of military dictatorship.”

The executive said the company had clear ambitions of operating based on international standards, in a country considered to be one of the most corrupt in the world. “There was an unbelievable number of challenges, but we were determined to be transparent in how we handled them. I felt we also were part of lifting the standards in the country.”

AI focus
Asked about the potential for the metaverse, he didn’t hesitate to declare “it’s not something that keeps me up at night”, but insisted AI is a topic he thinks a lot about and believes is a game changer. 

“To drive value we need to constantly improve the way we’re operating our companies, and AI will make a huge difference with respect to how we actually produce and deliver our services to customers.”

Telenor is experimenting a lot with AI, with about 250 different initiatives under test.