WILL DOT-USOF LET NORTH-EAST MOBILE TOWER PROJECT SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY?

Whenever Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes to the North-East, he cites the major telecom infrastructure development project which is Cabinet approved in 2014 as the proof of his commitment towards the region which has been lying neglected by previous governments.

Almost three years have passed since the project was approved, but bureaucratic hurdles have only complicated matters regarding this project. Now the people of the North-East are asking whether this ambitious project will see the light of day under Mr. Modi…

NEW DELHI, MAY 28, 2017: When Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister three years ago, one of the flagship projects which his Cabinet cleared without delay was the “Comprehensive telecom development plan for the North-East Region” (NER) worth Rs.5,336 crores which envisaged providing mobile coverage to 8,621 unconnected villages and installation of 321 mobile towers along National Highways, besides strengthening transmission network in all the eight states in the region.

While PMO is continuously pursuing the project since 2014, steps being taken by top bureaucrats sitting in Sanchar Bhawan could prove to be detrimental to the project, so much so that when Mr. Modi’s presents his government’s report card before next Lok Sabha polls in 2019, the NER telecom project could be far from completion. Ironically, even Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha looks oblivious to the ground realities of Modi government’s flagship project and seems to be convinced by assurances from his officers that the NER telecom project would be completed under the present government.

Taking a glance at the past two years of the project, any telecom expert would suggest that so much time has been wasted by officials in the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), the funding arm, that completing the project on time would be a challenging task. And to top it up, even the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), which is to execute phase I of the project, has also been responsible for the undue delay.

While presenting the three-year performance report of his ministry before the national media a few days back, the Telecom Minister said the NER telecom project would be completed by December 2018, a commitment which he has given even to Parliament, but in its latest note to the PMO on the issue, DoT has stated that the project will be completed by March 2019.

NORTHEAST MOBILE TOWER PROJECT (PHASE-I)

Project conceived in 2010-11

Cabinet approval in August 2014

Tender published on April 8, 2016

Testing completed of 5 shortlisted companies — September 30, 2016

Tender opened — April 25, 2017

Interestingly, the project when initially approved by the Cabinet in August 2014 was to be completed by June 2017 (see the link), but spanners were repeatedly put by officials of DoT, USOF and BSNL, leading to unnecessary delays. Though the BSNL finally cleared the tender last month (see the link), an unsuccessful bidder has now reportedly approached the court which might again delay the project. 

How serious are the DoT and USOF officials about this prestigious project can be gauged from the very fact that after BSNL opened tender for phase I of the mobile tower project last month, the Telecom Commission, DoT’s highest decision-making body, had called a meeting on May 18 specifically to give final clearance to the project, but the meeting had to be cancelled reportedly on the request of USOF. A project which has already been delayed twice got yet another setback due to this dilly-dallying tactics of the USOF and DoT.

Government sources say Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha is keen on seeing that all processes of awarding the tender is completed by June 15, 2017 so that the work could start without any further delay, but steps being taken by senior bureaucrats in DoT  suggest otherwise. Even if all formalities are completed by June-end, then also the project will take two years to complete, as 24-month time period has been stipulated to complete the project. Which means that phase I of NER telecom tower project will be ready by June 2019 and not March 2019 as has been informed to the PMO by the DoT.

Now lets look on the points on which the DoT and BSNL officials delayed the project even after years of deliberations first in the DoT and then in Cabinet.

After the Cabinet cleared the project in August 2014, the then Telecom Secretary wanted to float the tender in December 2014, but USOF and BSNL delayed the project by more than 15 months on one pretext or the other.

Government sources say USOF delayed it as it wanted to introduce EDGE technology, which was not approved by the Cabinet. Similarly, BSNL also kept delaying it allegedly to favour a foreign vendor despite being aware that indigenous technology was to be used in completing this project. BSNL then again complicated the matters when it went for re-testing of technology despite the fact that the same technology was successfully implemented just a few months back in remotely-located villages 10 Naxal-affected states. Re-testing was done from which BSNL gained nothing as same companies which had cleared the first phase of testing were again given a go ahead. This resulted in wastage of another six months.


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