Flawed policy execution and lack of proper coordination seem to be delaying the government’s pet project of improving mobile connectivity in the North-East. Though it was cleared by the Union Cabinet in September 2014, work is yet to begin on the project.
While the first phase of the project to set up telecom towers in strategically important Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam was finalised in April 2017 after a delay of almost a year, the second phase that will connect the seven North-Eastern states is also being plagued by the problem of inordinate delays, besides lack of interest from private telecom operators.
There’s only 30-40% mobile coverage in the North-East with connectivity being good in big cities like Guwahati and other state capitals, but very poor in rural, remote and border areas.
Several officials FE talked to said the project has been delayed due to “flawed policy execution” and “lack of coordination”, which hampered finalisation of tenders and led to cost overruns.
In the first phase, earmarked for BSNL by the department of telecom (DoT), the state-run telecom operator in April awarded work to two domestic telecom infrastructure firms for 2G mobile connectivity in 4,118 villages through 2,817 telecom towers. This is expected to be completed only in late 2019. The project cost for this phase has been finalised at around Rs 2,386 crore, which is 20% higher from the earlier estimated Rs ,975 crore.
The delays and cost overruns for the second phase of the project are more worrying.
The second phase which is reserved for private telecom operators has also been delayed by over a year. The first tender was floated by Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) in May 2016, but failed to attract any interest. USOF then held consultations with COAI following which it came out with a new tender that included technical modifications suggested by the telecom operators’ body, sources said. “Even after agreeing with the demands of private telecom operators, when the revised tender was opened in May this year, only one company, Bharti Airtel, had applied. This is a waste of time and resources of the government. This phase could have been given to BSNL like Phase 1,” one of the sources said.
That apart, the second phase under which 3,856 telecom towers are to be set up in seven North-Eastern states and 321 towers along the national highways in the region, the cost overrun is steeper at 56%. The total cost has now risen to Rs 4,396 crore against the earlier Rs 2,817 crore.
-By Rishi Ranjan Kala