The ‘Be Indian Buy Indian’ tussle in full swing

While BSNL protests barring foreign vendors, the tech ministry bans 59 apps and TRAI bats for indigenous equipment

BSNL. Niti Aayog has recently recommended that BSNL’s 4G network be made using only locally designed, developed and manufactured (IDDM) products. The government has not officially taken any decision.

However, BSNL officials have protested that any such decision would be a major setback for the PSU. The risk of restricting it to only Indian suppliers would mean delay and push the cost of equipment by more than 25%. Any external interference in the process is not fair for a company which is supposed to run on commercial lines.

BSNL CMD PK Purwar reiterated the stand during the Niti Aayog meeting. “The tender is in public domain and anyone can buy and bid. What BSNL needs is 40-watt transmission power/port/RAN, etc, which are ready to use and already deployed. BSNL does not have money for experimentation. In view of this, before finalising tenders, capabilities have to be demonstrated and the product should be ready,” he said during the meeting.

The All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB) had also sought the Prime Minister’s intervention to ensure that the authorities examine the issue in a time-bound manner and allow it to go ahead with the 4G tendering process. Their stand was that none of the Indian suppliers manufacture 4G equipment and also have no experience of building 4G networks. On the pretext of Make in India, the equipment, a lifeline for BSNL is being stopped, said AUAB, in its letter. It maintained that when BSNL’s competitors are procuring 4G equipment from experienced vendors with proven technology, why should BSNL alone be compelled to procure sub-standard equipment. It alleged that some service providers had vested interest in not letting the tender go through.

Backgrounder. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited had to cancel the March 23 tender the PSU had invited for planning, engineering, supply, installation, testing, commissioning and annual maintenance of 4G mobile network in North, East, West and South zones of BSNL, and MTNL, Delhi and Mumbai on turnkey basis. The value of the order is estimated at Rs 8697 crore.

The Telecom Equipment and Services Export Promotion Council (TEPC), had complained to the Commerce and Industry Ministry and the cabinet secretary in the PMO that the tendering process flouted the Government of India’s Make in India policy and was heavily in favour of multinational companies. It also did not comply with the provisions of the Public Procurement Order of 2017. In response to TEPC’s compliant, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) asked DoT and BSNL to put the tender on hold.

The TEPC identified numerous conditions in the tender which effectively disqualified domestic bidders. One, the bidder has to have a minimum turnover of Rs 8,000 crore in the last two years. Another, the bidder should have experience of installing and commissioning over 20 million lines of GSM 900 and or GSM 1800 and experience of rolling out networks of the size of a minimum two million lines. Further, the bidder should also have 3GPPP or higher version of UMTS network of a total capacity of five million subscribers in at least two countries. The main determining condition is the 40-65 percent value addition one. Whereas Nokia and Ericsson, while manufacturing telecom products in India, have a local content value addition of 40 percent, government norms call for 40-65 percent depending on the products.

TRAI. Addressing a PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI) webinar on ‘Telecom sector in COVID-19’, TRAI Chairman RS Sharma strongly advocated domestic manufacturing of telecom equipment and “digital sovereignty”, as it stressed on the importance of providing opportunities for local players in the sector and called for sharp focus on digital infrastructure investments.

Sharma said government policies relating to electronics and local handset manufacturing have paid rich dividends, and more needs to be done, particularly to push domestic manufacturing of telecom equipment and ensure value addition. He warned against dumping strategies resorted by countries to kill domestic industry before raising prices, and added that such “tactics” need to be countered with preferential market access policy.

“Ultimately countries have strategies where they actually dump things and they try to kill the domestic industry and then they raise the prices…essentially we need to realise this tactics and we need to appropriately give preferential market access policy which has been there…need to ensure we implement them”, he said.

Clear targets need to be set on how to proceed in this sector, he asserted, adding that telecom being a “sensitive sector” makes it imperative for India to become sovereign in terms of information security.

“The National Digital Communication Policy of 2018, where TRAI had given lot of inputs, we have three areas…one is connecting India, second having software and services on top of that, and third digital sovereignty, and therefore domestic manufacturing of telecom equipment must take place…that has not happened,” he said.

Mr. Sharma noted that while the country had performed well on software front, building strong and unmatched platforms for digital identity and digital payments, there is a need to ensure flow of investments into digital infrastructure in the country.

“I agree, that unless we provide opportunities for our own domestic players, we will not go anywhere,” he said.

59 apps banned. In another unrelated move, the Indian technology ministry banned 59, mostly Chinese, mobile apps including Bytedance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat in its

strongest move yet targeting China in the online space since a border crisis erupted between the two countries this month.

The ministry issued an order stating the apps are “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. Following the order, Google and Apple will have to remove these apps from the Android and iOS stores.

The ban is expected to be a big stumbling block for Chinese firms such as Bytedance in India, which have placed big bets in what is one of the world’s biggest web services markets. Beijing-headquartered Bytedance had plans to invest $1 billion in India, open a local data centre, and had recently ramped up hiring in the country.

India is the biggest driver of TikTok app installations, accounting for 611 million lifetime downloads, or 30.3% of the total, app analytics firm Sensor Tower said in April.

Among other apps that have been banned are Tencent’s WeChat, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times on Google’s Android, Alibaba’s UC Browser and two of Xiaomi’s apps.

Google said it was still waiting for government orders, while Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Bytedance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Indian customs at ports have since last week held back containers coming from China, including Apple, Cisco and Dell products, Reuters reported previously.

-CT Bureau

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