The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is considering to put approximately Rs 2,195 crore worth of telecom initiative only for the 4G telecom operators. This means that the telecom companies which have a 4G network will only be able to bid to for this telecom initiative. As per an ET Telecom report, this would put the state-led telecom operator, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) would be at an unfair position since it does not have any 4G network. It is worth noting that in the Indian Telecom industry, BSNL is the only telecom operator which does not have a 4G network. Although the revival package of BSNL which has been set in motion by the government promises airwaves to the telecom operator, the administrative allocation of the spectrum has not yet happened for the telecom operator. Until now, the absence of the 4G network has already put BSNL at an unfair position, but keeping the telecom operator from this new auction would be another blow which will come because of the absence of the BSNL 4G network.
Deployment of Network in LWE Regions
According to a source in the department, “The telecom department (DoT) has changed tender terms from 2G to 2G+4G, and now considering to mandate 4G only in a telecom project covering as many as ten states affected by Left-Wing Extremism (LWE).” It was back in May 2019, when the Cabinet had issued approval for the connectivity programme which is to be deployed in the Naxalite-Maoist affected insurgency areas in the Red Corridor. This proposal was made by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). As per the people who are aware of the matter, two of the leading telecom companies in the industry, Bharti Airtel, led by Sunil Bharti Mittal and Mukesh Ambani led telecom operator, Reliance Jio, and both are interested in taking up this connectivity project.
USOF Proposes LWE II Programme
A request for proposal was floated by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) which is DoT’s funding arm for extension of the LWE connectivity, or simply LWE II programme. As per this proposal, DoT needed a company to deploy towers and establish connectivity in the Red Corridor regions of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal. This proposal has been extended thrice till now. It is also worth noting that the USOF is a Rs 50,000 crore fund of the government which is dedicated to bridging the digital divide in India’s rural and remote regions.
BSNL Left Out Because of No 4G Network
To recall, when DoT had first introduced the proposal for connecting the LWE regions, the condition for the telecom operators was to have 2G technology. But, in November 2019, a tender was floated asking for 2G+4G services. This creates a roadblock for BSNL, which lacks 4G technology.
Last time around, when BSNL was handed over the work, the telecom operator had deployed 2,355 towers in record time. Also, BSNL had proposed massive savings in the tower deployment by quoting a cost of Rs 78.23 lakh instead of Rs 1.8 crore per tower proposed by USOF. However, a DoT note has said “BSNL proposal would entail a lower grade of service with deficiencies.” This sentiment and the 4G network mandate could mean that the state-led BSNL might be left out of this tender and the other companies, majorly Bharti Airtel could have a lead since it has both 2G and 4G network.