Mobile Connectivity in North East Villages Still a Far Cry
NEW DELHI: In May last year Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF) floated a tender to set up towers in uncovered villages in the Northeastern states (except Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam considered difficult/remote areas) and for mobile coverage along National Highways as part of comprehensive telecom development in the region, which does not have good infrastructure and is lagging behind from other states of India.
But apparently as a strategy private operators stayed away from the tender process and no company came forward to put up the towers. It was the case when these private operators have taken licenses to provide telecom services in the Northeast, but they never came forward to put up telecom infrastructure on their own.
It was then that DoT held meeting with the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) to find a way forward. COAI gave its suggestions which ironically the Telecom Commission agreed completely without any changes or clarifications.
Market analysts and telecom experts say the COAI virtually adopted “blackmailing” tactics and forced DoT to agree to such terms and conditions which would not only put the DoT on a weak footing but also lead to misuse of public funds. The new provisions agreed by DoT in favour of COAI and telecom operators are also against the Competition Commission of India (CCI) guidelines as it favours particular companies and discriminates against other firms who are not operators but telecom equipment manufacturers and are ready to bid for the project as they have done in other projects. The DoT have also agreed to COAI terms and conditions which also detrimental to environment as it would enable setting up of diesel-powered gensets in villages and eco-sensitive zones.
Telecom experts point out that it will first such case in the telecom sector across the world where funds collected from private operators to boost telecom infrastructure would be given back to them for the same job. They should have put towers as per contractual terms and agreement, and are hence “defaulters”. Ironically, USOF is giving funds collected from operators back to them to put up towers.
It will also be first time in India, where a government department and “defaulters” are fixing the terms of the tender.
DoT also ignored state-owned BSNL in this project. Relying on private operators instead of state-owned company is bizarre. DoT seems to have completely ignored a CAG report which had pointed out how in the past private operators first took money and subsidy from the government to set up towers in remote areas, but later shut down these towers living several users in the dark. These cases are in the litigation, they added.
There are 8,621 uncovered villages in the eight Northeastern states – Arunachal Pradesh (2805), Assam (2503), Meghalaya (2374), Manipur (528), Mizoram (252), Nagaland (134), Sikkim (23) and Tripura (2). For this, the DoT has envisaged setting up 6,673 towers in these eight states with an investment of Rs.4,770 crores. The DoT has also earmarked Rs.270 crores for setting up 321 mobile towers for providing telecommunication coverage along the National Highways in the region. But all these projects have been stuck for the past several months due to delays in finalizing the tender process.