Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Refrain from Bidding on BBNL Wi-Fi Rollout Tender

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The Government of India had rolled out a tender for a near Rs 10,000 crore investment concerning the deployment of 1.25 million Wi-Fi hotspots across 2.5 lakh village blocks. However, as per a new ET Telecom report, the tender has failed to capture participation from the top three telecom operators of India – Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm as these telcos did not apply for the tender. Going by the words of the senior executives, the telecom operators did not see much business sense after taking a thorough look at the tender document and its technical specifications. It is worth knowing that the body that floated the tender is the state-owned Bharat Broadband Networks Ltd (BBNL) which is responsible for leading the national broadband venture, BharatNet.


Not Much Business Sense in Deploying Wi-Fi Hotspots for Telcos

A senior telco executive went on record saying, “On paper, BBNL’s tender document says an implementing agency can offer last-mile connectivity across 2.5 lakh village panchayats (or blocks) either through public WiFi access points or any other suitable broadband technology, but technical specifications suggest deployment must be through WiFi access points only.”

The Government was planning to roll out the 1.25 million Wi-Fi hotspots across India by March 2019. However, given that the tender has only seen interest from MTNL, ITI, Telecom Consultants India (TCIL) and Bharat Electronics (BEL), the ambitious plan of the centre does not seem to be coming to fruition anytime soon.

The telecom companies event went ahead asking for clarification from BBNL and suggested that “use of mobile broadband technology be clearly incorporated as a second option in the tender, especially since most Indians “use smartphones as their primary device to access the internet.”

A senior Reliance Jio executive said under anonymity, “In today’s day and age, the government should leave it to the service provider to decide on the technology option, especially when 4G can be a much better option for last mile connectivity at the village panchayat level.”

On being questioned by ET, Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea did not return any response.

Telcos Considering 4G as Better Option for Internet Connectivity

However, when a BBNL official was approached, he said that there are no inconsistencies in the tender document and, thus, also no need for clarification. The official also said that there is enough clarity in the tender document, and all the contentions on the telecom operators’ level are the only cause of interpretation because of which they have withheld their bids from the tender.

The official also further added that there were a lot of clauses in the tender document related to Wi-Fi technology that “were deleted after telecom service providers voiced their concerns, and other changes were made through amendments to make the tender technology-neutral in accordance with the Cabinet decision.”

The telecom operators have also not developed necessarily good terms with the government especially regarding this matter since the government had taken the path of rolling out Wi-Fi access points instead of 4G mobile base stations. This means that the telecom operators would be forced to deploy more such access points in each village block to offer internet coverage which would be comparable to what the 4G mobile base stations would provide. Another reason for the telcos’ reluctance is the risk of Wi-Fi access points being stolen since unlike the mobile BTS, the Wi-Fi hotspots are 5-10 metres high whereas the cellular towers are 30-40 metre high, thus making them difficult to tamper with. Maintenance of this equipment along with ensuring that they get proper power supply throughout is yet another business challenge.

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Arpit spends his day closely following the telecom and tech industry. A music connoisseur and a night owl, he also takes a deep interest in the Indian technology start-up scene and spends rest of his time spilling poetry and stories on paper.

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