BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Local telco Progresif Cellular announced a major restructure last week that will see transfer of its assets and customers to a newly-created subsidiary, simply called Progresif.

The telco also announced the appointment of a new CEO, Hjh Nurul Haniah Hj Md Jaafar, who previously served as the company’s chief administration officer and has been leading Progresif’s transition following the consolidation of all network infrastructure in the country.

Hjh Nurul spoke exclusively with The Scoop about the Progresif’s plans for 2020 — which includes the launch of 4G+, fibre broadband and Progresif Media — as Brunei’s telcos recalibrate to major shifts taking place across the industry.

Moving into Progresif 2.0

When Darussalam Assets (DA) — the government-linked company that owns all three of Brunei’s telcos — announced that it would be consolidating all network infrastructure under a new entity called Unified National Networks (UNN), it said the move would level the playing field for all operators by allowing them equal access to infrastructure, thus making the sector more competitive.

But the change also provoked many questions about how the telcos would reorient themselves to a new business landscape.

“The idea is that we shouldn’t make our own investment [into infrastructure] — the point of the consolidation is to avoid duplication, avoid spending government’s money on the same thing,” said Hjh Nurul.

The 15-year industry veteran was officially appointed Progresif’s CEO in early October — replacing Paul Taylor as the company’s top executive — and has led the transition team as assets are transferred to the new subsidiary by January 1, 2020, with a commercial launch set for January 24.

The Progresif headquarters on Jalan Pasar Gadong. Photo: Courtesy of Progresif

“Since March I have created a team that is going to help me fill up the business case for this company…. Progresif Sdn Bhd is going to be a subsidiary of Progresif Cellular. We are not a direct entity of Darussalam Assets, but over time we may be absorbed under DA. For now it’s two separate entities.”

With network operations now managed by UNN, there was, understandably, much consternation among employees about whether Progresif would be downsizing its workforce, particularly when national unemployment stands at 8.7 percent.

“At first you can understand everyone was nervous, anxious, worried because this is their livelihood. They have families to support. A lot of people were upset because they didn’t understand the transformation,” Hjh Nurul said.

“Myself and my former CEO, we went down to [speak] with individuals and to staff at the stores… The ones who felt they were most at risk [of losing their jobs] would be engineering and our sales because that is where our biggest numbers are.”

She stressed that while no staff would be retrenched, Progresif employees in now redundant positions would be retrained for new roles under an entity called DevCo, which will be headed by a different CEO under the umbrella of Progresif Cellular.

“The rumours flying around that people will be out of a job, that is not true. But their jobs will not be the same anymore. And this has been misconstrued to mean that they won’t have a job because they will be doing a different set of tasks from what they are doing today.”

When the network consolidation was announced, Progresif Cellular had 286 employees, but since then dozens of staff have either joined UNN or chosen to leave the company altogether, bringing the head count to around 240, said Hjh Nurul.

“Going into 2.0, our intention is to have around 180 staff as part of Progresif… The number is less [than it is now] because we need to operate lean as a new organisation.”

She explained that Progresif has gone through a major internal restructure, with job roles and departments reorganised.

With the creation of the new subsidiary, all employees were required to reapply for their current position or apply for another role within the company if they wish to take on a new position. Those who do not make it through the selection process will be moved to DevCo.

“We published our new organisation chart in October, and we started interviewing for the new positions the week of November 11,” said Hjh Nurul. “If after rounds of interviewing and shortlisting you don’t make it, then you go DevCo.

“So the idea is to make sure that everyone has that opportunity to try. We need to make it as transparent as possible, that’s why it has taken quite a lengthy amount of time.”

At DevCo, Progresif Cellular staff will maintain their salaries and be trained with new skills to fill roles across Darussalam Assets’ group of companies, or within the private sector.

‘We will finally have 4G’

The current iteration of Progresif Cellular was established in 2014, after it took over operations from the now-defunct B-Mobile Communications.

Beginning with just 20,000 subscribers, it was an uphill battle for the company, a minnow competing against the much larger telco DST, which already had 4G services and a subscriber base of close to 400,000, exceeding the population of Brunei at the time.

But Progresif’s customer base has since grown to 200,000 — although hindered by delays to introduce its own 4G service — and the telco has introduced a suite of digital apps such as Progresif Radio and the mobile wallet Progresif Pay, as well as a ticketing platform called Progresif Events.

“These are definitely exciting times for us. Finally after how many years, we will have 4G,” Hjh Nurul said.

“But we are not just going to stop there. All three telcos will be able to have 4G+, and before it was only TelBru providing fixed broadband, but now we can do that too.

“All the basic infrastructure services we will be able to provide whether its broadband, WiFi, 4G, because UNN now allows for equal access [to network infrastructure]. But where the differentiator is for us, would be our value-added services.”

She added that new product offerings will be announced in January — along with new pricing plans and number portability. Progresif is also looking into developing more FinTech products and other mobile services that capitalise on the Internet of Things.

The Progresif Pay app was launched in May 2018 as Brunei’s first mobile wallet. Photo: Courtesy of Progresif

Evolving beyond mobile services

The telco’s mobile wallet, Progresif Pay, has seen modest uptake since it launched in May 2018. The app, which was developed in partnership with Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam, so far has 18,255 downloads but could see a boom if the rollout of cashless payments at petrol stations takes off as planned — but competition from BIBD’s own mobile payment services still poses a challenge.

The company’s other flagship app, Progresif Radio, has been downloaded 20,000 times since its launch in 2017, but the CEO acknowledged that is has been difficult to get Bruneian listeners to tune into a station that is not on FM airwaves.

“The number of listeners is up and down every month, depending on when there are lots of campaigns and promotions — then you see the number shooting up. When we were giving away a trip to Bali, the audience was at its highest.

“We’ve got good DJs and their creativity helps in attracting the number of listeners but it is not an easy job. Every day the team is coming up with new programmes, content and ideas to talk about. I think coupled with video content, this could be a powerful duo.”

Participants of an ASEAN journalism workshop for youth visit the Progresif Radio studio. Photo: Courtesy of Progresif

In 2020, the internet-based radio station will be evolving into Progresif Media, a streaming platform for music, movies and TV. The upgraded app will be subscription-based, providing both free and paid on-demand content.

“We will be getting Hollywood films and we are talking to RTB about getting their library of content,” Hjh Nurul said. “But we also want to champion local creatives and help them develop uniquely Bruneian content for the platform.”

While there may be a need for a digital platform to showcase Bruneian creativity, how easy will it be to get audiences to adopt a new service when there is an endless glut of content available on giants like Netflix and Amazon for as low as $10 a month?

The new Progresif boss seems to adopt a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality.

“If we have content that engages with the community, I think we can create the demand… For example when [comedy troupe] Bruhaha started doing shows here in Progresif’s event space, the audience was less than 100. Now, they perform to audiences of 700 people.”

“Sometimes it’s about supporting locals and supporting what they believe in. This is something that I think could work and we are helping generate that interest,” she said.

“But now, whatever we spend, whatever we innovate on — we need to make sure that there’s return for the country and for us as a business.”

This article was updated on Dec 31, 2019 at 2.59pm to reflect a clarification in the seventh paragraph – the subsidiary Progresif Sdn Bhd is already a legally-incorporated entity, but assets will only be transferred from the parent company on January 1, 2020.