Telenor unit terms Bangladesh’s attempts to curb internet access ‘illegal’

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Ahmed Hasan on Unsplash

Grameenphone, the Bangladesh division of Norway’s Telenor Group, said the local telecom regulator’s move to restrict internet bandwidth for its services was “illegal,” as the company continues to pursue arbitration over an audit demand of nearly $1.5 billion.

Bangladesh’s largest mobile company said Sunday at a press conference the regulator’s move to restrict internet access was “specially designed to put pressure on the operator by negatively impacting customer experience on the operator’s network.” It is seeking court intervention while going through the arbitration process.

Grameenphone, which has nearly 75 million subscribers in the country, is fighting to keep its internet services open as the Bangladesh government uses bandwidth restrictions to pressure it to pay tax penalties, revenue sharing dues and interest. The access curbs hurt mobile customers and could lead to business losses, it said.

“It’s not appropriate to put customers at the crossfire of this discussion — this is not a good story for the reputation of Bangladesh,” Grameenphone Chief Executive Officer Michael Foley said. “We want to be at the table to resolve the issue through arbitration and move on.”

Shares of the company fell 2.3% as of 12:50 local time in Sunday trading on the Dhaka Stock Exchange.

Grameenphone was ordered in April to pay about 85 billion taka ($1 billion) to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and roughly 41 billion taka to the National Board of Revenue after a government audit of the period from 1997 to 2014. The company has hired law firm Allen & Overy to help with arbitration, Foley said on the sidelines of the press conference.

Bandwidth Restriction

The Bangladesh telecom regulator reduced Grameenphone’s bandwidth on July 4 by 30% in order to pressure the company to pay.

“The claims were re-audited and they still didn’t pay the money,” BTRC Chairman Jahurul Haque said in a phone interview on Sunday. “There was no other option open to us other than restricting the bandwidth capacity.”

Haque denied Grameenphone’s assertion that the restriction is unlawful.

The regulator also punished Robi Axiata, a subsidiary of Malaysia’s Axiata Group Berhad, by cutting bandwidth 15% for not paying 8.67 billion taka.

The BTRC has defended restrictions on bandwidth as a measure to get payments from both companies. “The commission believes the companies will pay their dues in an effort to serve their customers with normal bandwidth capacity,” the regulator said in a statement.