As per ideal business model for telecom, four viable operators are required to avoid monopoly and to have fair competition. One of them should be preferably a PSU. BSNL has been in the telecom arena under various avatars for more than 165 years. It established good practices and conventions in the telecom service worth emulating by the lateral entrants in the sector. It entered into mobile services, with a big bang with free incoming offer, declaring India as ‘free incoming’ nation. The other private TSPs were forced to give free incoming facility, because of BSNL, benefiting the customers and it clearly demonstrates the impact of competition and need for a PSU. It was the first operator to remove roaming charges for incoming calls (from June 15, 2015) making ‘ One nation one number’ dream to become true.
Transparency in billing and metering has been the hallmark of BSNL, which has been appreciated by the sector regulator, TRAI. BSNL was adjudged as the most trusted brand in the telecom sector along with LIC in the insurance sector. BSNL’s tariffs are very competitive. At the same time it does not resort to predatory pricing. It follows ethical and fair business practices. Because of BSNL presence in the mobile segment, there was a transition from ‘missed call’ regime to ‘free call’ regime.
BSNL along with MTNL has pan India presence. Once these two entities get merged, pan India leased circuits can be provided with greater ease, throwing stiff competition. Serving back-ward, hilly and remote (BAHAR), tribal and rural areas has been the USP of BSNL as it has a service motto rather than profit motto. BSNL has a wide spread OF (Optical Fiber) network penetrating into even rural areas.
During natural disasters, it is always the BSNL which will be at forefront. When there was a severe earthquake at Bhuj, Gujarat it was only the BSNL buildings that could withstand the impact of the tremors and survive which shows the quality of its buildings and uncompromising standards. During the Hudhud cyclone at Visakhapatnam, it was only the BSNL network that was live. Without bothering about expenditure, BSNL ensured that DG sets were running on 24×7 basis giving continuous service unlike the private TSPs (Telecom Service Providers). It allowed customers of other TSPs to use its network with ICR (Intra circle Roaming) arrangement. BSNL’s exemplary services were applauded by the State government and customers. Similarly during Chennai floods and Orissa cyclone it rose to the occasion and came to customers’ rescue. It offered free calls during natural disasters. MOC mentioned on many occasions about BSNL’s noteworthy services during natural calamities.
In the national security angle, BSNL presence is very much required in the Telecom segment. People will never forget how one particular TSP manipulated CLI of incoming international calls and presented them as local ones, just to save IUC (interconnect Usage Charges), jeopardising national security. Armed forces rely on BSNL/ MTNL for their telecom needs. Like umbilical cord, the landline network connects customers to the mother BSNL. BSNL (Best Spoken National Language) landline network is an ideal one for long duration conversation. Landline connection serves as address proof. Though BSNL marched ahead of other TSPs in introducing 3G services and being ‘generations’ ahead of other operators, it is lagging behind others in 4G services. Delay was there in allotting spectrum to BSNL. BSNL’s 4G tenders had to be cancelled as they were not conforming to Athmanir Bharatha. Till 4G services are started by BSNL, it is handicapped as there is no level playing field. Wherever 4G services are introduced by BSNL (using 3G spectrum), data download speeds are quite attractive as evident in the speed tests. After successfully launching a core testing network, the consortium of TCS, CDOT and Tejas is the front runner for rolling out 4G in BSNL. It will be the country’s first indigenous 4G network.TCS has partnered with CDOT for core equipment and Tejas for radio equipment. TCS will provide billing and other software. The consortium has plans to further upgrade the network to 5G by 2023. Let us hope that the deviations (highest in radio network) proposed in specifications, which include critical issues, will be adequately addressed by the consortium so that the quality of 4G service of BSNL will be on par with that of private TSPs. BSNL has successfully laid submarine cable between Chennai and Portblair/ other islands in Andaman & Nicobar which has ushered in the digital revolution in these islands. This cable was commissioned by PM on August 10, 2020. This project was completed ahead of schedule by BSNL. It is going to lay a similar cable between Kochi and Lakshadweep islands. BSNL has installed wifi hotspots at major tourist centres, bus stations and rural telephone exchanges. It will be leveraging its fiber and broadband infrastructure to PDOAs (Public Data office aggregators) registered with DOT under PM- WANI (Wifi Access Network interface) programme. It will also register as PDOA and migrate its existing wifi access points to PM-WANI for better utilization. BSNL has vast experience and infrastructure for offering satellite services in remote and inaccessible places where other media is not feasible. It should take initiative in the provision of satellite broadband service in such places. BSNL has launched satellite based IOT service in partnership with Skylo. BSNL is doing well in FTTH and enterprise business. Compared to FY 20 in FY21 revenue in these segments is more. FTTH revenue increased from Rs 517 crores to Rs 937 crores. It is providing a good number of FTTH connections. Wherever fibres can’t be laid, it is providing Bharat Air Fibre service (unique to BSNL) which is a wireless connectivity using unlicensed spectrum. In this service Line of Sight radio waves are used to serve villages up to 5Km from exchange. Internet speed is upto 10 Mbps. BSNL should offer Inflight wifi services (using BTS and Satellites) ahead of other TSPs for which it has already got licence. Lot of business opportunities are available in this segment which should be fully exploited by BSNL. The wherewithal of BSNL should be utilised by the government for the implementation of national projects like Bharat Broadband Network, LWE (Left Wing Extremism) II, providing OF connectivity to all the villages. BSNL should leverage Artificial intelligence, big data, Machine learning and Block chain technologies to monitor/ improve its services. Recently it has integrated BSNL Automated Virtual Assistant (BAVA) in its website to answer customer’s queries related to services and to assist them. It is partly rule based and partly AI based. For strategic reasons, to avoid monopolistic tendency, to control the tariff and to provide good telecom services in rural areas BSNL should become strong and should be provided with a level playing field. Because of BSNL’s presence, tariffs are under check. When customers can’t differentiate between operators based on tariff, they go by quality of service leading to its improvement by all the operators benefiting the customers. BSNL should become a great national asset.
(L Anantharam Ex-Advisor, Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India)