It seems that the Department of Telecom (DoT) does not believe in learning from its past mistakes. It also does not believe in allowing fair competition in the telecom sector. Moreover, DoT also seems to be least bothered about how public funds are to be used for greater public benefit. Similar is the case when it comes to the telecom infrastructure project for the Northeast worth Rs.5,336 crores which is being closely monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Papers available with ICTflash.com suggest that while deciding on phase-II of Northeast mobile tower project worth Rs.3,065 crore, DoT is blatantly favouring existing mobile operators and ignoring open bidding. What is ironical is that the existing operators who are providing services in the NE will be given funds from the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF) to set up towers. Ironically, these mobile operators were supposed to cover all these villages in the last 20 years of their operations in the Northeast. 

Moreover, DoT is doing this by ignoring the fact that private operators in the past have cheated DoT in similar projects which not only affected telecom services but also caused monetary losses to the government. DoT has totally succumbed to the pressure of the mobile operators’ body — Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) — which has literally arm-twisted DoT to favour private operators and harm the interests of state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Not only this, USOF and DOT have changed the terms of tender in consultation with COAI and its members, which is unheard of in any Government tender. Also USOF and DOT have misled Telecom commission by submitting wrong information (more on it later)…

NEW DELHI, MARCH 28, 2017: In May last year 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 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. It is also pertinent to mention that the person who initiated all these suggestions is I.S. Sastri of USOF, who have been in this position since September 2011.

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.

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