BSNL May Lease Out Bharat Net’s Optical Fibre Base To Fight Financial Crisis

Faced with acute financial crisis, government-controlled BSNL is mulling to lease out its vast optical fibre-based telecom network, laid under the Bharat Net project. According to a telecom industry official, the said optical fibre network could be worth Rs 50,000 crore.

BSNL has 7.5 lakh kms of optical fibre laid across the length and breadth of the country in the past four years. The project led to internet connectivity for a limited number of panchayats and is yet to be completed.

“We are doing everything possible to have a good revival plan for BSNL. We are also advising state governments to not disconnect power from the BSNL exchanges and facilities,” said Aruna Sundararajan, telecom secretary replying to THE WEEK’s queries on BSNL’s revival package.

The proposed revival package aims to provide voluntary retirement service option to BSNL’s 1.7 lakh employees across the country. In addition, BSNL also looks for 4G spectrum buyouts through the package. So far, 4G waves were denied to BSNL, but allowed to private players like Reliance Jio by the government.

The package is yet to be approved by the Cabinet and now hangs under uncertainty as India goes to polls over the next few months. The financial crunch saw BSNL defaulting on its February salaries.

Unfulfiled telecom projects

Over the past five years, BSNL’s telecom services have taken a back seat in reaching the remote corners of the country. The telecom PSU failed to fulfill its service obligations in the north-east, Andman and Nicobar islands, border areas and in areas affected by left-wing terrorism even after receiving cabinet approvals for many of these projects from the Modi government.

In 2014, under the previous government, a project to bring 2G mobile connectivity in left-wing extremism affected areas across 23 telecom circles in five states was devised. BSNL proposed to erect 2,200 telecom towers across these circles and proposed a budget of Rs 5,899 crore to complete the project.

Later in the year, after the Modi government came to power, the cabinet re-drafted the project with an outlay of Rs 4,000 crore. Two companies—Vihaan Network Ltd (VNL) and Himachal Futuristic Communications Ltd (HFCL)—were given the tender for the project.

VNL, a home-grown telecom equipment manufacturer aiming to service areas left out by bigger telcom players, had proved its mettle by developing an indigenous patented design for small towers that are solar-powered. These towers have a power back up of up to five days and can provide 2G/3G/4G data services in remote areas. The company successfully deployed more than 2,500 such self-developed towers across left-wing affected areas.

Similarly, HFCL, also a home-grown telecom equipment manufacturer, had made advances with its optical fibre technology. The company also received a large tender from BSNL for carrying out the Department of Telecom’s Bharat Net programme that aims to connect all panchayats to the internet.

However, just three years later, the government decided to re-draft the project yet again. This time, the Cabinet approved the project to include 4,072 mobile towers, but providing both 2G+4G services. This required more sophisticated technology, which the indigenous players found difficult to fulfil. As a result, the re-drafted policy seemed to favour foreign telecom equipment manufacturers in India’s $22-billion telecom equipment manufacturing business.

Apart from these, the government, which initially laid special focus on developing connectivity in the northeast region, had earmarked a special project of Rs 5,000 crore in 2015. This project is also pending as funding from the government stopped coming in.

Another project that is currently pending is the one aimed at improving the connectivity across the border areas. This, despite a budget of Rs 4,000 crore being earmarked for it. Calling of tender to improve connectivity in the Andaman and Nicobar islands is also pending so far.

According to the telecom department’s own estimates, there are more than 60,000 uncovered villages in the country.―The  Week

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