By Clara-Laeila Laudette and Supantha Mukherjee
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Veon wants to focus on 4G deployment for the next three years before rolling out 5G, its chief executive said on Wednesday, a strategy in stark contrast to the bleeding edge aspirations of other telecom operators gathered at the Mobile World Congress.
The vast majority of operators speaking at the annual industry event in Barcelona touted their plans to launch 5G networks, with Orange, Verizon and Deutsche Telekom flaunting their latest experiments with robots and edge computing.
But Veon, which serves 240 million users in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Algeria and Russia, insisted on a very different track in the face of its largely low-income, infrastructure-starved customer base, most of whom earn daily wages.
"There is really a need to make sure that smartphone penetration gets to the right levels faster, that 4G accessibility gets to the right levels," CEO Kaan Terzioglu told Reuters on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress.
"I don't like the vanity of 5G being discussed before we get the basic things done."
The mobile and broadband operator, in which the biggest shareholder is Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman's investment vehicle LetterOne, will seek to give its clients broadband access, with Terzioglu noting he would be open to work with Elon Musk's Starlink to bring internet access to remote areas via satellite.
"I don't expect 5G deployments in our markets commercially over the next three years... though we will make deployments for fixed wireless access and private networks," Terzioglu said, adding that fewer than half of his customers had 4G coverage.
The pandemic, which exacerbated socio-economic equality as a result of the sudden shift online - something half the planet is unable to do - has increased extreme poverty by 7%, Terzioglu said, in chorus with other teleco executives who pledged to fight the digital divide.
"The only way to address that is to ensure equal access to 4G and fiber in homes, otherwise the gap will even get worse."
(Reporting by Clara-Laeila Laudette and Supantha Mukherjee; editing by Kirsten Donovan)