The Rise of Robi: Second Largest Telecom Operator in Bangladesh


Robi is the 2nd leading telecommunication operator in Bangladesh with about 51 million subscribers. In 1997, Chittagong-based conglomerate AK Khan & Company and Telecom Malaysia launched a joint venture called ‘Aktel’ in Bangladesh. The company has been operating under the name “Robi” since 2010. After more than two decades of operation, the company made its debut in the stock market in Dhaka and Chattagram in 2020, breaking the record of country’s highest IPO launch of Tk 523.7 crore. The company currently has a market share of 29.7% based on the number of subscribers. In addition to providing telecom services, the mobile operator is also coming up with various digital services for its customers. The company is also providing a variety of cloud, analytics and IoT-based enterprise solutions aimed at expanding its B2B business.

Early History of Robi

TM International Bangladesh Ltd. was established in 1996 as a joint venture between Telecom Malaysia and AK Khan & Company in Chittagong. TM International and AK Khan & Company respectively had a stake of 70% and 30% in the joint venture. That year, the Bangladesh government-licensed Grameenphone, Sheba Telecom and TM International Bangladesh to launch GSM technology in Bangladesh as a mobile operator service. On 15th November 1997, the joint venture company started its journey as a cellular service provider in Dhaka under the name Aktel.

Later on March 26, 1998, Aktel started its journey in Chittagong. In the same year, the company expanded its operations to Narayanganj and Cox’s Bazar. In 1999, they launched prepaid service as well as SMS service for the first time. Meanwhile, in order to provide uninterrupted customer service, Aktel established Seamless Network Coverage on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway in 2000, known as the Chittagong Dhaka Corridor or CDC. In 2001, Aktel launched One Prepaid Service and became the first fully integrated Voice Response based “ Call Center ” service in the telecom market of Bangladesh. In 2002, Aktel launched BTTB Incoming Services in the country. According to an article by lawyersnjurists, in 2002, Aktel became the first telecom operator to offer cellular services in Rangpur and Dinajpur in the north of the country. In the same year, the company started offering payment requests and automatic bill generating services for postpaid subscribers. In 2004, Aktel successfully expanded to 61 districts of the country out of the 64 districts, except for the three districts in the Chittagong Hill Tract. The company also surpassed the milestone of 1 million subscribers in that year. In the same year, they launched inter-operator SMS and international roaming services. In 2005, Aktel launched its first electronic recharge facility, E-Fill, and became the first telecom operator in Bangladesh to offer GPRS Internet services. In addition to this, for the first time in the country, the company has introduced 1 second pulse for postpaid and 10 second pulse for pre-paid to provide services to the subscribers at affordable prices. At the end of that year, the number of subscribers of the company exceeded 3 million. On May 11, 2008, the company signed a 100 million dollar deal with Huawei to expand its GSM network. According to an article by lawyersnjurists, by the end of that year, Aktel was able to cover 90% of the country’s Thana’s by deploying more than 3500 BTS towers  in 451 upazilas and the number of subscribers of the organization exceeded 5 million. 

In 2008, Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo bought out the 30 percent stake of AK Khan & Company in Telecom Malaysia International Bangladesh Ltd. for 350 million USD. The number of subscribers reached a 10 million milestone In 2009.

The Rise of Robi

In 2009, Aktel’s majority shareholder Malaysia’s Telekom Malaysia International Berhad, rebranded as Axiata. Following this, the company’s various subsidiaries and brands in different regions of Asia were also slowly going through that rebranding process. As a result, the company was re-incorporated as Robi Axiata Limited in March 2010 and the company was rebranded as “Robi”. At the time, Robi’s tagline was “Ignite the Power Within”, which has gained a lot of popularity from the young generation to the general public. According to a Reuters article, Robi’s number of subscribers exceeded 12.3 million at the end of the year. Since the rebranding, Robi has also changed its business strategy. Robi started to expand its digital services and enterprise solutions business. Following this, in 2011 Robi signed an agreement with BRAC Bank’s mobile financing service bKash as a distribution partner. In July of that year, Robi, in association with Pragati Life Insurance and BIMA, launched the first “Robi Bima Mobile Insurance” in Bangladesh with around 6 million subscribers registering. In 2013, Robi launched their first 3G network service in Dhaka and Chittagong, which was later rolled out across the country. In the same year, NTT DoCoMo reduced their ownership to 8.41%, and the remaining 91.59% was owned by Axiata. In December of that year, Robi joined the Bangladesh Army and created the world’s largest human flag with 27,117 participants, setting a Guinness World Record for Bangladesh. At the end of 2013, the number of Robi subscribers exceeded 25 million. In 2014, the company invested more than 200 crore BDT in 2G and 3G network coverage expansion in the country. That same year the company launched the e-ticketing platform and the mobile application platform for domestic developers. The company also launched a vehicle tracking service called Robi Tracker. In 2015, Robi took the official sponsorship of the Bangladesh cricket team for Tk 41.41 crore BDT. In the same year, Robi Axiata Limited received a loan assistance of 99 million USD from International Finance Corporation. The company also collaborated with Facebook to launch free basic internet subscription in Bangladesh. In 2015, Robi was able to generate 5,240 crore BDT in revenue and the company had a net profit of 400 crore BDT. At the end of the year, Robi had more than 28.3 million subscribers.

In 2016, Mahtab Uddin Ahmed was appointed as the CEO of Robi. In addition to launching the Robi mobile health service mDaktar that year, it also teamed up with 10 Minute School, Bangladesh’s largest online education platform. Robi also launched Robi Yonder Music in Bangladesh in partnership with New York-based Yonder Music Inc. Meanwhile, in November of that year, Robi completed the merger with Airtel Bangladesh as the first merger in the history of telecom operators in Bangladesh. After the merger, Robi Axiata Limited owned 68.7% of the Malaysian Axiata Group, Japan’s NTT Docomo owned 6.3% and Bharti Airtel owned 25%. After the merger of Robi and Airtel, Airtel continued to operate as a brand of Robi in Bangladesh and the combined number of subscribers of Robi and Airtel brands stood at more than 33.8 million. As a result, Robi surpassed Banglalink with 26.8% market share to become the second top mobile operator in Bangladesh. In the same year, Robi Aggressively invested more than 2,000 crore BDT as part of their 2G and 3G network expansion and launched a private cloud service called ‘Robi Cloud’ to provide cloud computing and hosting services to local businesses. In 2016, the company generated revenue of 5,270 crore and paid tax of 2,110 crore BDT. However, the company’s net loss that year was 390 crore BDT. In January 2017, Robi launched its own video streaming platform ‘Robi Screen’ and in March they launched ‘RobiCash’, a payment service for Robi customers, which allowed the Robi subscribers to avail utility bills, mobile recharge and train ticket cuts through the app. In August of the same year, Robi entered into an agreement with Sri Lankan start-up nCinga to provide IoT solutions in Bangladesh. In November, Iflix, an on-demand entertainment streaming service, was launched in Bangladesh in partnership with Robi. In addition, Robi’s aggressive network expansion continued in 2017 to bring more people in Bangladesh under better network infrastructure and build 4G network infrastructure. That year, the company invested around 2,400 crore BDT in their network infrastructure expansion. As a result, the number of Robi subscribers also increased to 42.9 million. In that year, the company was able to generate revenue of Tk 6835 crore BDT, but also had to face a loss of Tk 284 crore BDT.

 Robi other services

In February 2018, through 10 Minute School rebranding, Robi-10 Minute School started to run its own activities. In the same month, the company launched 4G networks in 64 districts of the country simultaneously. In July of the same year, the company began a 5G network trial by collaborating with Huawei. In September, Robi introduced a paperless e-registration process facility for old and new customers. By November, their 4G subscribers had surpassed 5.5 million. At the end of the year, the revenue exceeded Tk 6,800 crore BDT and net profit was Tk 245 crore BDT. Besides, the number of subscribers of the company increased to 46.9 million, and at the end of 2018, Robi’s market share in the telecom industry of Bangladesh stood at 29.9%. As a digital service provider, Robi launched the tagline “New Experience in Life” in January 2019. In the same month, Robi My-Health Service and Robi-10 Minute School launched the smartphone app Google Play Store as well as the digital travel solution In June of that year, Zee5, an Indian on-demand media streaming provider, was launched for Robi and Airtel customers as part of Robi Digital Services. Meanwhile, in July, the company launched new digital entertainment platforms called Robi TV+ and Airtel TV+ for Robi and Airtel subscribers. At the end of the year, Robi had a market share of 29.6% with 49 million subscribers, and the company invested more than 1,400 crore BDT. At the end of the year, the revenue exceeded 7480 crore BDT, but the company had a net profit of only 17 crore BDT.

Where is Robi Today

In February 2020, Robi launched VoLTE service in Bangladesh for the first time and in March launched Robi Amar Hishab, a cloud based solution for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country. Meanwhile, in April, Robi brought SMS-based Corona Alert solutions to different parts of Dhaka. In May, the Robi-10 Minute School app crossed the 1 million download milestone in the Play Store. That same month, RedDot Digital Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Robi, launched IPTV and the digital entertainment platform Binge. Japan’s NTT Docomo, meanwhile, sold its stake in Bharti Airtel in June, leaving Airtel with 31% (31.31) and Axiata Group with 68 percent (68.69). On the 15th of the same month, Robi reached the milestone of 50 million subscribers. Meanwhile, Robi raised 523.7 crore BDT through IPO in December, which was the highest IPO in the country. Earlier, the record for highest IPO was held by Grameenphone, the country’s leading telecom operator. After the IPO launch, Robi Axiata Limited’s stake in Malaysian Axiata Group Berhad stood at 61.82% and Bharti Airtel’s stake stood at 26.17%. The remaining 10% belongs to the general investors of Dhaka and Chittagong Stock Exchanges. In 2020, the company has seen good growth in the Corona epidemic. At the end of December 2020, Robi had a market share of 29.9% with 59 million active subscribers. Besides, the company was able to generate more than 7,500 crore BDT in revenue and net profit of 155 crore BDT. In addition, the company paid more than 4,200 crore BDT in taxes to the Bangladesh government that year, which was 56% of the company’s revenue that year. In February 2021, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, Robi joined Live Technology and released the first Bengali browser “Duronto“. In March 2021, ICT Minister Junaid Ahmed Palak announced Robi’s bdapps as the country’s national e-store. According to Robi’s website, the company currently covers more than 13,000 locations with 4G coverage and provides 4G services to about 98% of the population.

Despite investing close to Grameenphone in telecom network expansion, Robi still lags far behind GP in terms of revenue generation and net profit. According to the 2020 Financials, Grameenphone’s revenue is almost 2 times and 3 times that of EBITDA, Robi’s Revenue and EBITDA. Apart from Robi Telecom, there are various enterprise and IoT-based services, but many prominent companies in the world like Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba are already doing business in these sectors. In that context, achieving sustainability in these competitive sectors would be difficult.

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