Prasad 2.0 to expedite Modi’s unfinished telecom connectivity programs

India News

NEW DELHI: India’s new telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is expected to take some prompt decisions to accelerate the Narendra Modi’s ambitious telecom connectivity initiatives in rural and remote regions including strategic China border which has been nonstarter so far.

“More needs to be done and those (BSNL-led connectivity in uncovered villages) programs will be expedited soon,” Prasad told ETT and added that some work was already initiated during his earlier tenure in coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Prasad, in his previous near two-year stint, from May 26, 2014, to July 2016, has led the left wing extremism (LWE) initiative across 96 districts in 10 states to deploy 4,072 towers aimed to boost telephony in the Red Corridor, and that was completed in record time in 2016.

The ambitious programs to provide rural telephony services across uncovered areas of Northeast including select Assam region and Arunachal Pradesh that borders with China, being undertaken by state-controlled telco, has so far been derailed. The telco, despite proposing lowest deployment cost is yet to get the department’s nod to also extend LWE after MHA sought its extension in 2016.

With nearly 40,000 villages still lack mobile telephony services in India, the ambitious connectivity programs in uncovered areas are also being monitored by the Prime Minister Office (PMO).

Government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) fund, a Rs 50,000 crore-strong corpus, to connect the uncovered villages, has been blamed for dismal progress, with an apparent bias towards the state-run operator. It has drastically cut fund allocation to Rs 3,573.70 crore in 2018-19, from Rs 6,998.76 crore disbursed in 2017-18.

Sources allege that the department’s fund administration wanted such a strategic initiative to be awarded to private sector players, instead of BSNL, but many in the government feel that critical infrastructure across China-bordering villages can only be driven by the state-owned operator.

In some recent instances, villagers in bordering-areas experience mobile signals from China-based telecom networks.’

The Northeast-II program has been awarded to Bharti Airtel while BSNL-led Northeast-I initiative is yet to hit the ground despite technical test drives which have been successfully conducted a year ago. The Cabinet has though approved it way back in 2014.

“This is the time. We want this program to be started soon. We are also ready to deploy 4G (fourth-generation)-ready infrastructure wherever possible,” BSNL chairman Anupam Shrivastava told ETT.

Last month, the state-driven telco, in a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has reiterated its desire to kick start the mobile connectivity project to facilitate those betrayed of basic telephony services, and provide 4G technology where mobile backhaul is readily available.

Shrivastava, however, added that the telecom PSU has high hopes from the new minister who in his earlier stint indicated his keen desire to revive the telco which in turn was able to increase its market share.

In early 2016, telco’s overall growth was doubled the industry rate of 0.85% to nearly 1.70%.

In March 2015, BSNL added 8 lakh new subscribers, which was increased to as much as 23 lakh customers monthly addition in March 2016.
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