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BSNL seeks govt’s help for state-funded projects

State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has been losing out some of the prestigious government-funded digital connectivity programs to private sector rivals such as Bhart Airtel and Reliance Jio, and has sought telecom department’s intervention in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) campaign.

In a letter to telecom secretary K Rajaraman, dated March 14, 2022, BSNL chairman Pravin Kumar Purwar said, “BSNL is in the best position and has the past experience of rolling out mobile networks in difficult terrains with complete professionalism. It is requested that the work of providing coverage to the uncovered villages should be given on nomination basis to BSNL, which will be carried out with Indian designed and manufactured equipment.”

Further, the top official assured that the telco would be in a best position to complete the connectivity program within the 24 months from the date of award.

The letter comes close on the heels of the BSNL partnering with homegrown Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and state-driven Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) for the commercial rollout of fourth generation or 4G services together with a 5G-upgradable network.

Despite the deployment of telecom network in critical left wing extremism (LWE)-hit areas in a “record time” by state-owned telco, the department awarded LWE-II program to Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio last year, and a further initiative to connect aspirational villages was also bagged by two private telecom operators.

In the ambitious telecom connectivity initiative for the Northeast region, the department awarded sites that were earlier reserved for BSNL on a nomination basis, to Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, and even in scenarios where only a single bidder turned up.

“There is no sensitivity towards the Prime Minister’s Atmanirbhar Bharat clarion call as the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) continues to award digital connectivity projects in uncovered villages to private service providers who are funded to deploy gear from foreign vendors,” a former official who does no wish to be named for the story said.

USOF is a Rs 55,000-crore strong corpus meant to provide telecom connectivity in rural and remote areas.
There are more than 25,000 villages in the country that are still not connected to any mobile network.

In a letter to USOF administrator, dated March 17, Rakesh Kumar Bhatnagar Director General, Voice of Indian Communication Technology Enterprises (VoICE) said that BSNL has not received a single mobile project in the last five years, and all projects of USOF were awarded to two private telecom service providers only “in the name of open tendering” and added that the “equipment deployed in all projects by them was imported and very clearly in violation of PM’s Atmanirbhar Bharat pitch flouting Make in India policy.”

“Public procurement (Make in India) policy in true spirit should be respected making use of equipment designed and developed by domestic local manufacturers, complying with Telecom Engineering Centre’s general requirements, and equipment to be deployed meeting the national security requirements and further having compliance to the mandatory testing and certification of telecommunication equipment (MTCTE),” Bhatnagar said.

BSNL continues to lose subscriber revenue following the non-availability of next generation network, and on the other hand losing out fully government-funded projects to private rivals.

In October 2019, the Cabinet approved Rs 70,000-crore revival for the financially stressed BSNL and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) that included voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), assets monetisation and allocation of 4G airwaves, expecting the two to turn a corner. TelecomTalk

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