It rings for thee, BSNL

State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) is tangled in a wired mess for which it only has itself or its creator (the government) toblame. A public telecom giant with vast potential, it’s failing to deliver. With a shrinking subscriber base, rigid tendering rules and extremely low revenue per user, the road to its revival looks challenging. But will the loss-making telco answer the call? CS Kotteswaran reports
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Illustration

CHENNAI: The BSNL Chennai Telephones, once a sprawling network connecting several lakh landlines in the capital city, is slowly losing its clout. The public sector telecom network has lost more than 1.7 lakh landline and mobile customers in the past two years, thanks to the systematic onslaught faced by the BSNL through its insiders, vendors, private telecom employers and the Union government policymakers. According to confidential sources with the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), at the current attrition rate of losing subscriptions, the BSNL will soon become extinct in Chennai in a matter of another seven years. By 2030, the Chennai telecom circle will be a thing of the past. Failure to upgrade technology, non-attending of faults, poor customer service, periodical theft of BSNL cables and spares, poor maintenance of towers and slow internet speed and lackadaisical marketing strategies have all coupled together in driving the BSNL to forfeit its market share to the private telecom players. “Usage of substandard Chinese spares, modems and tower materials have led to the collapse of Chennai BSNL at a slow pace over the years. Now the policy change by the government insisting on indigenous infra and materials is again a setback for the PSU fighting cash-rich private telecom companies. While BSNL vendors and policymakers saw it as a cost-cutting exercise, now there are no spares to repair the substandard materials supplied by China. Hit by a financial crisis, the BSNL too is unable to replace the infrastructure or replace the existing spares,” admits a senior BSNL official associated with technical aspects. Further, BSNL officials have added to the misery of the telco giant by technically converting lines into major service outages for which bills are not generated. Then after a few months, there will be an alert to the customer insisting on payments. “The customer who is already unhappy with the non-repairing will switch to a new customer and this has been happening for years,” alleges former telecom advisory committee member V Sathiabalan. Sathiabalan, who has filed more than a dozen petitions to the BSNL top brass and Vigilance department, is tired of inaction from the telecom ministry. The recent unfortunate incident is that the Chennai telephone circle had reinstated three telecom technicians suspended for their alleged involvement in a theft case related to BSNL cables in Tiruvanmiyur. “Even as the police investigation is pending, the BSNL officials have cleared the charges through a department inquiry and the alleged errant staff have rejoined the duty,” Sathibalan fumes, sharing the copy of FIR and media reports that explains the BSNL cable theft in the upmarket area.

A sleeping giant

Last year, BSNL senior officials reached out to an upcoming multi-storey complex that promotes market and housing flats in north Chennai, but though the private market complex and gated community authorities invited the BSNL for the offer, the field officials failed to materialise the memorandum of understanding for the reasons best known to them. When senior officials in Delhi came to know about the golden opportunity being missed by the Chennai BSNL questioned the field officials in Chennai. To this, the BSNL engineers said that they are trying the air net of BSNL which is usually used to provide service in non-motorable areas like mountains or on the other side of the river. In a congested area, the air net will be slow compared to the cable or optical fibre connections. “Despite knowing this will be a setback, the BSNL insiders subscribed this idea to the private gated community thus helping other private telecom players in the area,” admits a BSNL insider.

Copper wealth loot

The public sector has copper line connectivity from Kashmir to Kanniyakumari, but copper has lost its utility period in terms of data connectivity and mobile technology. Through the copper cables, only 20 to 30 per cent of utility can be achieved. Whereas the optical fibre cable is advanced and speedy. This is a transition period where some copper cables are essential for landlines and government establishments. The BSNL is in the process of slowly phasing out copper cables and replacing them with fibre, but in several incidents, the BSNL copper cables are getting looted. There are at least six FIRs and a dozen CSRs pending with several police stations in Chennai in connection with the theft of BSNL cables and there are no investigations into the matter where there is a court conviction. In most cases, BSNL officials have pacified the local police stating that the BSNL Vigilance department will investigate and take action. But in reality, no investigations ever led to the arrest or dismissal of BSNL staff who connived with outsiders in stealing BSNL properties. Cell phone tower steel, plastics, modems, copper cables and stationaries are the main targets of corporate fraudsters.

Ongoing stormwater drain works by the city corporation have further added to the misery of BSNL. “While TNEB and Chennai Metro Water rectify the cables and lines snapped by the city corporation contractors, the BSNL officials have not undertaken any restoration works, thus contributing to landline faults and poor connectivity. Unchecked over months, the public moved to private telecoms. The inaction on the part of police and department encourages the miscreants and BSNL insiders to exploit the situation to further copper loot,” alleges Sathiabalan. When contacted, a senior BSNL spokesperson R Adi Govind denied that the BSNL was letting down its customers or slowly losing the market. “It is a fact that the customer base has eroded in the last ten years, but we are still adding new customers and some of them are those switching over from private telecoms, upset with their hidden and exorbitant charges. Even today, BSNL has the cheapest mobile tariff plans for the commoners. As of date the mobile customer base of BSNL in Chennai circle is around 30 lakhs and there are more than one lakh fibre-to-home connections. To ensure uninterrupted mobile and internet connection around 4,000 mobile towers are maintained,” says Govind.

“In the case of landlines, more than ten lakh connections have been wiped out across south India, but this is mostly aggravated due to mobile technology penetration. The majority of the people are longer depending on landlines and the silver lining is that the offices will continue to use these landlines and intercoms and there is no immediate extinction for BSNL,” says the spokesperson. To a query on the suspended technical staff being reappointed by BSNL, the official claimed that the suspension was revoked after the BSNL fact-finding team found there was no prima facie in the matter. On the clean chit circular issued for the suspended BSNL staff, the official quips, stating the “matter an internal record of BSNL”. To another query on BSNL losing out the prime township connections, the official said the private sector managers often promise personal favours for the realty developers leaving BSNL as the last choice for large-scale connections. When contacted, the officials at the office of Chennai BSNL’s chief general manager said the issue will be looked into in detail and assured necessary actions in a phased manner.

Vibrant BSNL need of hour for public, nation

The government or the nation cannot afford BSNL to sink for it connects the most remote parts of India. It powers many government-run facilities. From the national security angle, BSNL presence is much required. And if the private players flounder, BSNL is the only telco the people could look forward to, point out those vouching for the public sector telco giant. “Only if BSNL is there, the public can feel assured as we need the network to prevent the monopoly by the private sectors. But unfortunately, the policymakers are benefitting the private telecom players at the cost of the public sector,” says Thomas Franco, convener of People First which works for the welfare of PSUs. The collapse of BSNL is a systematic planned strategy of the central governments to benefit private players. BSNL was not allowed to participate in the 2G spectrum, benefitting private companies. As a result the once Rs 6,000 crore profit-making company became a loss-making unit. Then the Centre delayed the salaries and offered Voluntary Retirement which resulted in 93,000 people quitting BSNL. “While the private players import Chinese and Korean spares, BSNL is not allowed to do so and is advised to go in for indigenous products which neither exist nor are best in quality, explained Franco. As a result of collective failure, BSNL is losing thousands of customers every month. To fill the 93000 VRS vacuum, contract workers were absorbed and now again the payments are delayed affecting service and employee morale. Even now, BSNL is not allowed to participate in the tenders and is provided stepmotherly treatment by the union government. Adequate funds are not sanctioned and there is no infrastructure upgradation,” adds Franco added recalling only because of the BSNL’s competition and presence, the incoming calls were made free and the cost of outgoing calls slashed by one-third in early 2000.

Safe, best during disasters

During times of natural disasters like cyclones, floods and tsunami, BSNL being a government PSU, always participates in the state and national disaster response team meetings and form squads to coordinate with the local government departments like local bodies and revenue departments, opined state government official attached to Chennai Corporation. Further several confidential helplines and databases cannot be provided to private telecom players endangering the database of the state and country. Discreet data sharing and credentials of the government sectors must be maintained like the helplines of police, national banks and government agencies in the state and Centre, notes the government official. “In the wake of cybercrime becoming a global threat, the role of government telecom is essential. Database threat, machine learning, cloud computing and big data are crucial areas that every nation is focussing and all this information technology is interrelated with telecommunication,” says IT consulting firm entrepreneur Aspire Swaminathan. There is a need for data protection and such things can be guaranteed or protected only by the law of the land if such data is vested with the government, then the safety parameters are better. For example, we cannot outsource or allow the participation of private players in Army or Reserve Bank operations. The same yardstick should be applicable for the telecom sector as the future operations of banks, railways, fintech companies, and non-banking finance sectors will depend on data security, opines Swaminathan.

Haunting realities

“It is a fact that we are losing customers daily due to unhealthy competition. The policy of the Centre had worked in favour of four to six private telecom companies that enjoy the latest 5G technology, whereas BSNL is operating on 3G technology. The 4G technology of BSNL is still on a trial basis,” says a senior BSNL official with technical telecommunication expertise. With limited resources and infrastructure, BSNL has the largest tower coverage covering both urban and rural areas at a cheaper price. But again the private players are giving free modems and instruments for which the hidden charges are collected over the years, whereas BSNL cannot collect hidden charges and the PSU is forced to depend on the vendors for such modems and utilities. Again this cost-cutting policy decision taken by the union government now adversely affects BSNL, states the official wishing not to be named.

How private players have forrayed into BSNL terrain

BSNL being a public sector is duty bound to follow the mandatory rules while following radiation norms and setting up of towers. Further, BSNL has to obtain no-objection certifications for every infrastructure installation,” points out a senior BSNL official. “For example, the private players grease the palms of local police officers, corporation councillors, highways departments, and local panchayat bodies for putting up their cables and lines, but the BSNL has no such provision for greasing the state department influencers. “When BSNL linemen request NOC or permission, the rule books are open and often the permission is denied. In one case, a dedicated BSNL cable connecting Sriharikota Sathish Dawan Space Centre was damaged by a private road contractor and the police took more than a month to investigate the case. Finally, after the intervention of senior police officers and BSNL officials the contractor repaired the damaged part after two months,” the official recalls. “In another case, a councillor with Chennai Corporation colluded with a private telecom player and objected to the replacement of new optical fibre cables. He insisted that we get the local permission and NOC, but the private telecom laid their lines without any official papers. Then there is no governing body to monitor these illegalities at ground level,” fumes the senior official.

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