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BSNL chairman seeks DoT secy’s decision if telecom services in unviable LWE areas will need to be discontinued

The telecom network for the Indian army and paramilitary forces in the naxalite areas may be closed down following non-action by the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) fund administration, compelling the state-owned telco to seek a “closure date” from the government.

In a letter dated May 27 to the DoT secretary, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) chairman PK Purwar said, “BSNL has not got any extension till date and due to commercial unviability of these sites, BSNL is in the view to close these sites in case DoT or USOF decide to not to give extension from a pre-defined closure date.”

The telecom services in the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) areas across 10 states backed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and funded by the Universal Service Obligation fund, were deployed by the state-run BSNL for strategic communications in the region.

Following the network deployment in 2016, the USO fund, a Rs 55,000 crore-strong reserve to boost rural telephony had asked the state-owned telco to operate and maintain the network for a 5-year period which is now progressively expiring from July 2020 to March 2022.

“It is requested to provide the extension of LWE project phase – I or give a date for shutting down of services with details of BTS location in those areas so that services can be closed after complying with the TRAI regulations,” the top official added.

Purwar, however, in his letter also said that BSNL had written several letters to the Ansuli Arya-headed USOF for the extension of LWE-I initiative but those were not even responded.

In August this year, an MHA official in a letter addressed to Arya said, “Keeping in view of the importance of mobile connectivity in these (LWE) least developed areas of the country, it is requested that the required funds towards operations and maintenance of commercially unavailable towers may be arranged from the USOF.”

Back in September 2020, MHA also recommended the fund support even after a 5-year term as the network deployed in remote, hilly and forest areas, might not be commercially viable.
A query to the DoT did not elicit any response.

Separately, in October 2020, Purwar in a letter to the DoT, citing network homogeneity said that the LWE-II initiative should be allotted to BSNL since the area envisaged in the project was overlapping with that of LWE-I project.

Earlier, defence secretary Ajay Kumar told that telecom infrastructure in border areas remain very critical, and as efforts were on to improve telecom connectivity in such regions, equipment through ‘trusted sources’ should only be deployed.

The Red Corridor telecom network initiative, driven by MHA is considered to be critical in nature in the wake of heightened national security concerns with experts warning against inclusion of any foreign vendor through private sector players.

Early this year, the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology (IT) had expressed its utter surprise at the government’s move to exclude state-driven LWE – II initiative despite the telco’s ongoing revival, approved by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-headed Cabinet in October 2019.

The phase-II of LWE program envisages to cover 4,072 site locations based on 2G+4G technology.

“The Committee is at a loss to understand when the revival of BSNL is priority of the government and the revival package is being worked out, why BSNL was not considered to participate in the bidding (LWE-II) process,” the lawmakers panel in its finding added.

Meanwhile, the telco’s employee groups said that the Cabinet-approved rescue plan could not yield desired results unless state-funded connectivity programs are awarded to the public-sector operator while homegrown companies blame bureaucrats of working against the Prime Minister’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). Koliasa

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