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Upgrading Strategic Telecom Infrastructure: PM Narendra Modi Proposes, USOF Disposes

USOF is one organisation in the DoT’s scheme of things which has now become infamous for stalling government projects. Project after project it is creating hurdles which is leading to delay in projects of national importance. Latest in the list is the project for upgradation of mobile services in LWE areas which is hanging fire for months now even as BSNL, the implementing agency, keeps begging for release of funds…

NEW DELHI : Once again the gross apathy of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) in clearing funds for projects of national and strategic importance has come to fore. So much so that the top Department of Telecom (DoT) officials have put on record that if the USOF fails to relax norms for release of funds to BSNL for implementation of projects and stop creating hindrances for the state-owned telecom firm, important projects may not get completed.

The latest case is that of upgrading bandwidth of 198 mobile sites in Left wing extremism (LWE) or Naxal-affected areas in 10 states for which BSNL has been requesting the USOF for months now to release funds to ISRO as VSAT charges so that additional bandwidth could be provided for advanced mobile services. Despite repeated reminders and request letters to USOF, BSNL has failed to get the funds cleared on one pretext or the other. There has been so much of delay that BSNL fears that the project might not take off at all.

At a high-level meeting held under the chairmanship of Additional Secretary (Telecom) where top DoT, USOF and BSNL officials were present, it was observed that USOF was creating hindrances and making the project unsustainable. BSNL officials expressed dismay over denial of funds to ISRO as bandwidth charges which was also a government-owned entity. To make matters difficult and unreasonable for BSNL, USOF asked it to submit monthly bills that too circle wise at local level despite knowing the fact that VSAT charges are paid centrally for corporate office. All this has led to delay in implementation of project in LWE areas.

The meeting decided that “there are substantial funds which is to be paid to BSNL by USOF. These funds still remain unsettled by USOF on one ground or other, largely on procedural matters which makes things difficult for BSNL. BSNL is of the view that the present USOF implementation system and additional system introduced by USOF is adhoc and is creating hindrances and making this project unsustainable. Until and unless USOF adopt a simplest system for release of funds, that is acceptable to BSNL, this project may not get implemented.”

It is not for the first time that the USOF has been accused of delaying and stalling important projects being implemented by BSNL, particularly those keenly watched by the Prime Minister’s Office which include improving mobile connectivity in LWE area and North-eastern states. It is due to the apathy of the USOF that there has been undue delay in getting the North-east tower project kick-started despite the tender process getting completed months ago. Similarly, the phase-II of LWE project is also hanging fire due to whimsical ways of the USOF.

“USOF clearly understands how crucial these projects are for the progress and development of rural and remote areas in LWE-affected states and the Northeast, still it creates hurdles by putting unreasonable and unfeasible conditions thus delaying these projects. The PMO has been pushing for earlier completion of mobile connectivity projects in these areas, but it is due to lackadaisical attitude of USOF  that the hands of BSNL, which is the implementing agency, are tied. USOF is also creating problems for vendors who are operating towers of phase I of LWE project by not releasing funds of time. Telecom Secretary has warned the USOF on several occasions on the matter but still nothing has changed,” said a senior DoT official.

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