In conversation: Ola Hanson, general counsel, Digi Telecommunications

Digi Telecommunications general counsel Ola Hanson details how businesses in the sector are getting creative to establish new revenue streams, as well as the role legal can play in supporting the company through a prolonged period of change.

GC Magazine: Tell me about Digi Telecommunications and your role with the company?

Ola Hanson: Digi is one of the three big telecom operators in Malaysia, listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. It is part of a global telecommunications provide Telenor Group and is a leader in driving progressive and responsible business practices. I was the General Counsel and Head of Legal & Regulatory for Telenor’s Swedish operations before coming over to Asia to work as the General Counsel for Digi.

Like many general counsels, I started off in private practice before moving in-house with a startup working in the fixed broadband space. I worked there for five years before that company was acquired by Telenor. After the acquisition, I spent seven years working with the Swedish operations before I was asked to take on this role in Malaysia.

GC: How important is Telenor Group’s presence in Asia moving forward?

OH: As a group, Telenor sees significant potential across Asia. In the past couple of years, they have expanded into Myanmar, which has so far been very successful. Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan are also very important markets for the group.

It’s an exciting time to be working in telecommunications, as our group builds out its presence across Asia while we work collectively to derive new sources of income – particularly from digital services.

GC: Why is finding new sources of income from digital services so important for a telecommunications company?

OH: Traditionally, for telecommunications companies, everything was fixed. You had the cables and provided the infrastructure for people to make calls to each other. Then mobile came into the picture with both voice and messaging services on the go. Then came the internet, which even today, continues to change the whole industry and competitive landscape. Consumption of data – both globally and across Asia – is exploding, while the use of voice and SMS is plummeting. More importantly, the revenue from those traditional streams is dropping, while the new revenue from data is leaving a shortfall.

GC: What impact will that have on the telecommunications sector as a whole?

OH: The upshot of this shift is that for traditional telecommunications companies to move up the value chain and take more part in services. Some services will be developed by the telecommunication companies and we will see new partnerships with big players in the digital space becoming more common.

In my opinion, I think that the industry as a whole will look completely different in 5 to 10 years. Telenor Group has made the decision to shift the company to become more of a service provider moving forward and are looking for new ventures and services in that space.

GC: What will the change in strategy mean for you as a legal department?

OH: As a legal department we will most likely see more collaboration agreements, M&A’s and other type of new and often complex arrangements. There’s a significant role for legal in guiding the business through these processes, often involving out-of-the-box thinking without taking unacceptable legal risks.

Telecommunications are a heavily regulated industry too, perhaps not to the extent of the banking or insurance sectors, but it’s still tightly controlled. That always creates work for a legal department, particularly as we transition to more of a service oriented provider from a traditional telecommunications company – there’s going to be different legislation which is relevant to us as a business.

GC: Coming to Asia from Europe, how have you found the regulatory environment to operate in comparatively?

OH: Whenever you’re changing jurisdiction, there’s going to be new challenges – whether regulatory or otherwise – to grasp as a lawyer.

Of primary importance, with increasing awareness and legislation involving data privacy it is vital to ensure that we have internal processes and policies in place in order to protect the privacy of our customers. At the same time, it’s important to see how the enormous amount of data can be better utilized to provide better and more relevant services to our customers. The in house legal counsels need to be on top of these assessments.