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Brunei, formally known as Brunei Darussalam, on the north coast of Borneo in South-East Asia, is one of the most connected populations in the Asia–Pacific, with an internet penetration rate of 95 percent.
This is due in no small part to the work of Unified National Networks (UNN). The organization was set up to totally transform the country’s telecommunication (telecoms) network as part of the implementation of Wawasan Brunei 2035 – a vision mapped out by the Government of Brunei Darussalam to stimulate economic growth and reduce dependency on oil and gas as the main source of income.
– Steffen Oehler
Owned by the Government of Brunei, UNN was established in December 2018, when Brunei consolidated all existing networking infrastructure nationwide into a unified network, with all services offered to the retail service providers on a wholesale basis.
“Telecoms are like the blood vessels in the body,” UNN CEO Steffen Oehler explains. “UNN is creating a modern, resilient and cost-effective digital platform connecting the entire country. Our vision is to be the pioneering digital platform, a trusted partner driving growth and innovation for all industries to help other organizations, businesses and the country into the future.”
Of course, being at the forefront of that means so much more than just infrastructure.
To date, UNN has laid almost 6,000 kilometers of fiber throughout Brunei, connecting over 220,000 homes and 325 local entities to fixed broadband services and providing cellular service to 94 percent of Brunei’s populated and rural areas.
Investments in infrastructure have allowed the organization to bring the nation closer to being a gigabit society. On 1 September 2023, it announced the implementation of a new 100 megabit-per-second minimum broadband speed, up from a previous 50 megabit minimum, while also offering 500 megabit-per-second capability to business users without a change in retail pricing.
“We have done what we have promised to do,” Oehler explains. “We are finalizing the fiber rollout of the country this year, with an additional 4,000 homes in urban and rural areas.
“This is very important, especially in our role, because if we are not doing it, nobody will. It is also bridging that geographical divide, where people think, ‘I am not living in the city, so I have nothing’.”
When The CEO Magazine spoke with UNN’s COO Uwe Beydemüller in August 2022, he explained how the company has provided a new perspective for both the country’s service providers and its end users and how it is investing heavily in data centers.
“We’re not stopping there,” adds Chris Phan, UNN Senior Vice President. “Consolidation phase is over. It’s now emergent technologies that we are embracing and we’re looking at data centers and cloud technology.
“Digitalization means the abundance of speed – and organizations, ministries and the government are looking at UNN to lead the nation into digitalization,” Phan continues.
“Whatever other emergent technologies that any big operator or wholesale infrastructure provider is doing, we are already doing it or in the process of doing it. We’re not just an infrastructure provider. The shareholders and the citizens of Brunei look to us as enablers.”
This includes building strong relationships with key strategic partners such as Huawei, Dell and Ericsson. Huawei Brunei has been involved in the construction and services of the country’s telecoms network for years, working with UNN for the launch of fifth generation (5G) mobile services.
Phan adds that a vital factor in UNN getting such major projects done is the contribution of such partners and fair, clear and transparent business rules throughout the complete end-to-end process flow.
“One of the things we do is to share road maps with them, because they can then be major partners from the very beginning. They carry you, and you carry them across a journey, and they understand what’s important to you and what lies ahead,” Phan explains.
“The road map comes from us in terms of the vision, it comes from them in terms of the tangible product and equipment that comes our way later on.
– Chris Phan
“It’s not just being an infrastructure provider, it’s UNN being partners to the smaller companies that thrive because of us. We have an ecosystem here that a lot of companies depend on to sustain their business.”
Phan says an aspiration for UNN is to place itself in user groups in order to both be prepared and also help shape and influence what comes into Brunei’s telecoms pipeline.
“They need us in terms of the way forward because they need our vision,” he states. “They need to know what to manufacture, and they need to know what’s important in three years’ time.
“We can’t do things on our own either. We need them. So as important as we are as employees to our direct colleagues, we’re actually building a system in Brunei where people need to survive because we’re there. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Both Oehler and Phan agree that the culture at UNN values working together toward a common goal, with the business consolidating cultures in the workplace and setting up a UNN training academy, focusing on the key objectives of the industry’s transformation.
Part of Wawasan Brunei 2035’s education strategy, which the Sultan approved in 2007, is to prepare its youth for employment and achievement in a world that is increasingly competitive and knowledge based.
– Chris Phan
“We’re looking at people development, upskilling and promoting a feedback culture among colleagues and employees to ensure that whatever we’re building up is sustainable,” Phan says.
“Because we have really good young, bright people available for us in the company, we have invested in the team, we have invested in the infrastructure required for that and now we see the return because operational tasks are taken.
“With the academy, we’re building up competencies for people and career road maps for them to ensure that they carry us forward. It’s a big responsibility. If you speak to any of our young colleagues, they have this sense of pride that they’re doing something good for the nation.”