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Rs 42,000 Crore BharatNet Projects Face Delay, Cost Overrun

Several government telecom projects funded by the Universal Service Obligations Fund (USOF) are facing time and cost overruns for reason like delay in tendering and decision making, legal issues through PILs, allegations of outdated technologies, and internal rows between its two implementing agencies like BSNL and BBNL over billings and other aspects of the projects.

USOF, having a corpus of Rs 50,000 crore, is funded out of the 5 percent levy collected from private telcos to fund government telecom projects.

DoT officials said there may be the delay in these projects since project managers have to be careful with issues like public interest litigations (PILs), monitoring of technologies, equipment standards, tendering transparency, billing scrutiny. Though they have to ensure that government funds are used properly and accounted for, that does not mean inordinate delay, the DoT officials said.

BharatNet-Phase-I, which was the first phase of the ambitious BharatNet and has connected 1 lakh GPs through broadband, has been completed on December 2017, though major service issues have been flagged by the department of telecom. DoT secretary had warned the two implementing agencies, BSNL and BBNL, about roughly 10 percent utilization of the BharatNet infrastructure. This project started in 2011 took six years to complete, though the speed picked only during the current government. Actual work had started in the second half of 2014.

Phase-II of the project aims to connect 1.5 lakh GPs and is yet to be implemented in a big way. Its deadline was December 2018, as announced by minister Manoj Sinha, though the official deadline is a quarter more in March 2019, which is also going to be missed.

The total project was to cost Rs 42,000 crore. The overall project status, up to January 13, 2019, as per BharatNet data, shows a length of OFC of 3,07,802 km and the number of GPs where OFC laid is 1.23  lakh and GPs to which OFC connected equipment installed are 1,16,729 GPs. The project needs to have 1. lakh GPs to be service ready by March 2019.

The North East Phase-I 2G Technology project is part of the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the rural and remote parts of the North-eastern region envisaging telecom connectivity in the whole of Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam. BSNL was nominated to install 2,817 towers covering in 4,119 villages. The PO is still awaited from USOF though some testing of equipment were done in April 2017 there was a PIL filed in SC alleging use of old technology like 2G in the project and favoring private companies.

A DoT official said BSNL was using equipment that was not up to the mark and using old 2G technology for this project, that is why no decision could be taken in a North East project. However last month, BSNL in its response to the apex court, argued that the petition was misconceived and could not be maintained, while the use 2G and 4G equipment together was mandated only in May 2018, much later than the contract was originally awarded. Now it is not known if there will be re-tendering to include both 2G and 4G, as like in Meghalaya or the same project will be tendered after disposal of a PIL case by the Supreme Court, which is in any way a long process.

Early this year, Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio) had suggested that USO fund should not be misused on promoting “obsolete technologies” to fuel rural telecom connectivity.

In the NE phase II -2G Technology project, where other parts of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura were also included and Meghalaya was dropped from the project, Airtel won a solo bid through open bidding, though BSNL was in the race for getting this project on a nomination basis. Now Airtel will install 1,694 mobile towers for 2,128 villages and 310 towers for National Highways.

A separate tender was floated for Meghalaya for 2G and 4G services. The clearance from the cabinet was given in December 2014 for an initial cost of Rs 1,377 crore, which has now gone up to Rs 3911 crore due to the inclusion of 4G and a re-tendering process will begin soon.―Mydigitalfc

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