State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has urged the telecom department to clear dues of Rs 250 crore to help repay vendors deploying telecom network infrastructure in areas prone to left-wing extremism (LWE).
BSNL has written several letters to the Department of Telecom (DoT) in the past few months, expressing apprehensions that third-party firms could lose interest in deploying networks in these sensitive areas if payments are delayed.
“We have written to DoT to pay around Rs 250 crore and expect the funds to be released this month,” BSNL chairman Anupam Shrivastava told ET.
The payments relate to extension of tower sites, he said.
The home ministry has given the go-ahead to the project, with an outlay of Rs 3,567.58 crore including maintenance for five years for 1,836 sites in addition to 363 existing sites.
In December 2016, 2,185 sites were up and running, comprising 1,829 new and 356 existing sites.
The government has approved provision of an additional 156 mobile towers in LWE affected areas with subsidy support of Rs 275 crore from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
In May, the Union cabinet had approved extension of providing 4,072 mobile towers, supported by USOF, upon the successful completion of LWE-I scheme. Under the phase-II programme, the home ministry identified 96 districts in 10 states as LWE prone zones and cleared an outlay of Rs 7,330 crore for telecom coverage.
The project is being funded through the USOF corpus formed in 2002 to facilitate rural telephony by way of charging universal access levy.
In a July 7 letter to USOF administrator, BSNL complained that the USOF demanded “further information/documents” every time it asked the department to release pending funds.
In 2016-17, the government had disbursed merely Rs 7,227 crore out of its Rs 50,000-crore kitty for enhancing rural telecom infrastructure.
USOF administrator Sanjay Singh said “We want to ascertain whether the technology is working fine, and are awaiting test results from the Telecom Engineering Centre, following which we will go ahead”.
The home ministry has also conducted the impact test, and live traffic field testing is required in Andhra Pradesh, he said.
However, he said, the department wanted to ensure coverage and quality of service as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India parameters.
The initiative was part of the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the Northeast that aims to provide connectivity to 8,621 villages with 6,673 telecom towers, with an estimated expenditure of Rs 5,336.18 crore that included coverage along national highways in the region. It also included ‘Connect North East’ programme by the state telco.
In April 2016, Gurgaon-based Vihaan Networks had bagged the order to roll out 1,893 mobile towers in Arunachal Pradesh and Delhi-based HFCL was allowed to deploy 924 mobile towers in two districts of Assam with a deadline of December 2018, which is expected to be missed.
In addition, the advance payment of close to Rs 300 crore for the Northeast project is yet to be cleared by the USOF to BSNL. As per bidding terms and conditions, this should have been cleared within 15 days from signing the contract, according to an industry executive.
Reliance Jio Infocomm, however, has a divergent view on the USOF corpus spends. The telecom operator’s president Mathew Oommen said the USOF proceeds should not be wasted on obsolete technologies and must be spent on progressive technologies needed in rural India.
However, DoT told the Anurag Singh Thakur-headed parliamentary standing committee on information technology early this year that it would be conducting periodical review meetings to ensure the USOF allocated in 2018-19 was better utilised and targets set achieved within the stipulated period.
The Lok Sabha standing committee on finance believes that the USOF should be fully deployed, especially with the public sector telecom companies, for boosting mobile and internet penetration, and delivering digital services to unconnected areas.