Telecommunications company Viettel has risen from nothing to record series of firsts and records in the industry, becoming a giant in Vietnam and gaining international influence. After 30 years, Viettel has helped create a facelift for the country’s telecoms, technology and industry sectors.
From services for the rich to mobile phones for all
In the late 1990s, mobile phones were a luxury item in Vietnam. Each phone with a SIM card cost the same as half a motorbike. To use the mobile phone, people had to spend 200 USD on subscription fees, excluding connection fees. Even foreigners who came to Vietnam and stayed in five-star hotels were stunned by the expensive call charges in a country that was trying to develop after war.
As a senior leader in the post and telecoms industry at that time, Mai Liem Truc often received complaints from international businessmen about telecoms costs in Vietnam. Later, he had high hopes for a “cheaper and easier mobile connection” thanks to the business license granted to Viettel, allowing this unit to implement all types of business services in the post and telecoms sector from 1998.
Giving a young firm like Viettel the license concerned many people, as previously the company had just engaged in construction. Viettel’s success in the new field at the time was limited to a fibre optic cable 1A which had the transceiver technology on the same cable made by Viettel. The company had not really participated in the telecoms business, although the transceiver technology on the same cable it studied was considered evidence of its telecoms technical capability.
According to Truc, when Viettel was allowed to work in the telecoms field, even the Ministry of Defence, Viettel’s governing body at that time, also worried, as it was the first military-run unit to participate in such an important industry.
“Then Defence Minister Pham Van Tra often met me after each Cabinet meeting to beg me to keep a keen eye on the enterprise. They and even I never thought that Viettel could be as big as it is today, because it was just a small unit at that time,” Truc said.
In 2000, Viettel launched prefix 178 on the VoIP service, marking a turning point of Vietnam’s telecommunications industry. Long-distance service fees became much cheaper. The success of the 178 prefix was not only the first development step of Viettel, but also helped open the door for a competitive telecoms market in Vietnam.
In 2003, with the construction and operation of its satellite earth station, Viettel’s internet exchange point (IXP) international connection speed rose to 45Mbps. By September 2003, Viettel began providing fixed telephone services in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and then other localities.
On October 15, 2004, Viettel launched its mobile network with prefix 098. After less than a year, Viettel had 1 million subscribers – a growth rate other mobile phone networks needed more than 10 years to reach. In 2005, Viettel’s internet network was expanded nationwide.
In 2007, the Tomato mobile phone package was born, rapidly accelerating Viettel’s development.
From zero in telecoms revenue in 2000, in 2010, Viettel surpassed the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) in terms of revenue, subscribers and market share to become the top network operator in Vietnam. Currently, it is the first network operator testing 5G service in Vietnam and serves more than 70 million domestic subscribers and 10 international markets.
From Vietnam’s number one to world’s Top 15
In 2006, Viettel started thinking about doing business abroad. The Foreign Investment Project Board was established, with the initial goal of doing business in two neighbouring countries – Cambodia and Laos. In 2009, Metfone, the Cambodia-based affiliate of Viettel, officially joined the network at the same time as Viettel became the number one network operator in terms of subscribers and profits in Vietnam. This was also the first time a Vietnamese telecoms enterprise had its own network in the international market.
For Mai Liem Truc, recalling a call in 2009 with Nguyen Manh Hung, then Deputy General Director of Viettel (now Minister of Information and Communications), brought about a lot of feelings. The call connecting between Vietnam and Cambodia showed the determination of Viettel’s leaders to create a bright future for the company.
“When I called Hung when he was working in Cambodia, Hung said that ‘No. 1 of Vietnam but compared to the world telecommunications companies is nothing, so Viettel will always create pressure to rise up and enter the Top 20, Top 15 of the world. I don’t like being the number one’. The statement made me feel Viettel’s aspiration, commitment and vision,” Truc said.
Bringing lessons from Vietnam to Cambodia, Metfone – a Vietnamese brand in Cambodia – quickly achieved great success. From the success in Cambodia, 31 employees of Viettel were sent to Laos to implement the Unitel project.
From 2009 to 2018, Viettel expanded its international market with the deployment of operations from Asia to Africa and Latin America. Ten affiliates of Viettel are operating in three continents, in which those in Cambodia, Laos, Burundi, Timor Leste and Mozambique rank first in their respective countries in the number of subscribers, revenue and profits.
Peru was the first international market with higher economic development than Vietnam that the company expanded to, with Peru’s per capita GDP three times higher than that of Vietnam. It is among the most profitable markets of Viettel. Meanwhile, Myanmar, Viettel’s 10th international market, contributed to Viettel’s record growth rate in its telecoms history. Only after about eight months, Viettel Myanmar had more than 5.4 million subscribers, the third most among Viettel’s largest international markets.
The success of Viettel abroad created a new reality for Vietnam’s investment. The country now not only waits for foreign investment in information technology and telecommunications, but also has large enterprises which can invest abroad and succeed.
Viettel not only created a brilliant mark in its own development history, but also helped improve Vietnam’s position in the international arena. The former Deputy Minister of Posts and Telecoms remembered: “When I went to Tanzania to launch the Viettel network, the Vietnamese ambassador here received the delegation and said that since Viettel invested in the country, Vietnam’s position here changed.”
The words that the Viettel leader spoke to the former Deputy Minister of Posts and Telecoms have rang true. This group now ranks among the world’s Top 15 largest telecoms companies in terms of subscribers.
Viettel’s new mission
When speaking about Viettel, people talk a lot about the will and discipline of a military-run enterprise. However, above all, timely and correct decisions and positive pressure have made a small business with capital of only 2 billion VND in 1989 become Vietnam’s No.1 economic group.
In the context of the fourth Industrial Revolution, leaders of the group have focused on researching and making equipment on new technology platforms and conducting a strong digital transformation campaign to help create a digital society in Vietnam.
In the domestic market, Viettel has virtualised all core network devices and applied network control technology by using software based on new platforms such as BigData, AI and virtual reality (VR). In foreign markets, Metfone is tasked with being a pioneer in the field in Cambodia.
In equipment research and manufacturing, Viettel is determined to produce its own hi-tech devices. Its leaders want to create “Made-by-Vietnam” products, not “Made-in-Vietnam” ones.
After 10 years, Viettel has mastered and produced almost all core telecoms network systems, such Online charging system (OCS), messaging system and base transceiver station (BTS) using 4G network. It is also studying 5G broadcasting equipment. Currently, the group is ranked among the top five largest telecoms equipment manufacturers and top 50 most expensive telecoms brands in the world.
In addition to telecommunications, Viettel has completed its tasks in the armed forces as it has succeeded in making high-tech equipment such as an airspace management system, radar stations and unmanned aerial vehicles, making Vietnam the 9th country in the world capable of producing these devices.
The business results in high-tech research and manufacturing also show the success of creating “Made by Viettel” products. In 2017-2018, Viettel’s total revenue from this field reached 17.4 trillion VND (748.3 million USD) and profit reached 5.25 trillion VND.
On May 10, Viettel successfully conducted the first call using 5G technology in Vietnam, making Vietnam one of the earliest countries to successfully test a 5G network. This move notes Viettel of its mission to bring the country forward at the same pace as the rest of the world in terms of technology.-VNA