In a letter to Modi, dated March 19, 2021, K. Sebastin, general secretary of the Sanchar Nigam Executives Association (SNEA) said, “BSNL revival is delaying mainly due to non-launching of 4G services and delay in land monetisation and clearing the debts.”
The BSNL group that represents nearly 13,000 executives, has further asked the top office to direct BSNL to upgrade as many as 49,300 base transceiver stations deployed at a cost of Rs 5,100 crore in anticipation of next generation services which according to it, would be the shortest and cost-effective route to 4G services.
In October 2019, the Cabinet had approved a revival package of Rs 70,000-crore for the two financially-stressed telecom carriers including Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) that contained the allocation of 4G spectrum, assets monetisation and voluntary retirement scheme (VRS).
Nearly 50% of the workforce of the two telecom companies opted for voluntary retirement reducing the wage bill to almost half.
“The new tender for 4G equipment may be dealt separately without clubbing with the upgradation. As and when indigenous core is ready, the equipment can be shifted to it, fully complying with the government policy,” the letter added.
The letter comes on the close heels of the Ministry of Communications’ view opposing the use of core network equipment supplied by multinational vendors.
BSNL, citing reliability issues with homegrown companies, wanted to deploy a proven or tested 4G core technology companies such as Finnish Nokia, Swedish Ericsson and Korean Samsung in order to hasten the next generation network rollout to also arrest the falling subscriber base.
In May last year, Modi launched the ambitious Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) campaign to reduce dependency on imports following the disruption of global supply chains due to Covid-19 pandemic-induced shutdowns, and encouraged domestic companies to take advantage of opportunity.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has recommended the use of Indian core network in the proposed equipment procurement for the launch of BSNL’s 4G services, after the telco had to scrap the notice inviting tender (NIT) it floated on March 23, 2020, on the back of allegations of restrictive conditions by homegrown vendors.
Finnish Nokia and Chinese ZTE were eyeing BSNL contract for the ambitious 4G rollout which according to the employee group, could cost much lesser or at nearly Rs 1,000 crore as compared to procuring new equipment for about Rs 9,000 crores.
“The estimated cost for new tender is Rs 9,000 crores, but BSNL is not having that much money to procure the equipment, and the additional procurement will become a wasteful expenditure for BSNL,” Sebastin said.
Homegrown companies such as Tejas Networks, Sterlite Technologies and Himachal Futuristic Communications were eyeing the radio business while state-owned Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) is said to be developing Indian core for the telecom network. The dependency on domestic companies, according to analysts, would further drag the BSNL’s ambitious 4G rollout.
Separately, large system integrators such as Tech Mahindra and Tata Consultancy Services in addition to RM Agarwal-headed state-owned ITI Limited are also eyeing BSNL’s 4G business.
Last week, Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State for Telecommunications said that the rollout of BSNL’s 4G services would likely be completed in 18 to 24 months.
BSNL will follow the applicable rules/guidelines/public procurement orders of the government, including the clause 144 (xi) of the General Financial Rules, 2017 in this regard, Dhotre informed the Parliament.
In January this year, the telco had come out with a fresh detailed notice inviting e-tender, for planning, testing, deployment and annual maintenance of 4G network across four zones in addition to Delhi and Mumbai circles on a turnkey basis.
The state-owned company sought proposals through the Expression of Interest (EoI) for undertaking Proof of Concept (PoC) from Indian companies for a total of 57,000 sites.
In line with the DoT’S technical committee views, BSNL has asked Indian companies to meet eligibility conditions except technical proven-ness of the equipment, and said that such companies could be registered for participation in the PoC as per provisions laid out for them.