A Six Year Old Mobile Phone Start Up in PNG

One of the areas of PNG which I love to write about is technology and innovation in PNG. Primarily because there’s not nearly enough of it going on and PNG would do well to do more in this space. Our lack of infrastructure investment and policy focus in this space has left us lagging against the world for decades and in the age of the internet we are still grappling with high costs and low levels of customer service.

Digicel has been a great catalyst in this area and my company Masalai Communications directly felt that because we were given the opportunity to design their first website when they started here. Digicel later on gave us the contract to run the Digicel Urban Bounce dance competition which ran for 2 years in Port Moresby, so I was able to see up close what innovation could look like.

But for a vibrant market to develop, everyone knows you need healthy competition and in a primarily 2 player mobile phone market, bemobile has struggled to keep up with Digicel.

So what can bemobile do now after 6 years of failed effort to drive competition? Where do they go to now after attempts at attracting Vodafone Fiji’s management team fell flat?

To answer these questions and more I thought I’d speak to another person with an upclose experience with Digicel, Sundar Ramamurthy, who after selling his ISP Data Nets to Digicel is now the Group CEO for bemobile.


Sundar, tell us a little about yourself. When did you come to PNG and how did you go about setting up your first major business the ISP, Data Nets?

“I came to PNG in 1976, went to Primary and High School in Port Moresby. I then went to University in Sydney to study electrical engineering, then did my M.Sc in the U.S.A. in Electrical Engineering. I helped Telikom PNG build the Lotto network in 1992 and then decided to start Data Nets in 1993.” 

What makes you passionate about ICT in PNG?

“Over the last 20 years the calibre of kids coming out of Unitech has been good. However they have little to no practical knowledge. When they are given the right opportunities they shine. Allowing innovation in a company is key to keeping intelligent people engaged. People like to know they make a difference.”

You’re also involved with the IPBC led National Transmission Network (NTN), with that in mind what can Papua New Guineans expect overall from ICT in PNG over the next 5 years?

“The NTN allows for the construction of high speed fibre across the country. That in itself is not enough. Retail providers need to have competition and low cost access to the fibre. Both of these allow for a vibrant local communications market. For this to occur specific SOE’s and IPBC need to work in co-operation. This is starting to happen.”

From running one of the biggest ISP’s in PNG to now being the Group CEO of bemobile is there much difference, in this day and age, between an ISP company and a mobile phone company?

“Big differences.  ISP’s can sit on top of mobile infrastructure. The converse is not true. The mobile business is 24 X 7 X 365 by its very nature. People are more dependent on a mobile network in PNG for voice and data. We need to deliver a reliable and robust network first and foremost.

I recently mentioned on Sharp Talk that you were in this new position and that in this rebuilding phase of bemobile you have described bemobile as a 6 year old start up. From the 100 odd comments that came through 3 key issues became quite prominent. 1) What is bemobile doing about its network expansion and quality? 2) What is bemobile doing about its Customer Service? 3) Can bemobile rebrand itself so that people can forgive it for its past failings? (See all Sharp Talk comments below)

“These are all valid comments. They represent significant challenges to bemobile today. Each of these comments requires a methodical and systematic approach, patience and determination on the part of employees, shareholders and customers.”

Thank you very much for your time Sundar and good luck!