Sibal forms panel to probe delays in rural mobile service rollouts

Sibal forms panel to probe delays in rural mobile service rollouts

New Delhi: After taking bold decisions like separation of spectrum from licences, telecom minister Kapil Sibal has now set up a panel to ascertain the reasons for delays in providing mobile services in rural areas under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) scheme.

The decision comes in the wake of controversy over a reduction in the penalty imposed on Anil Ambani-led Reliance Communications, which had switched off services for some time in some of the areas.

The panel has been set up under the Telecom Secretary to find out the reasons for the delay in rolling out mobile services under the Universal Service Obligation Fund and asked them to submit the report within eight weeks.

“... Set up a committee under chairmanship of Secretary, Telecom, including members of USOF, DDG (Finance-USOF), Member (Technical), Member (Finance), Administrator, DDG-(Licensing), DDG (Technical-USOF) and legal adviser. It may consider all aspects and suggest action that may be required in the facts and circumstances of the cases of delays," a note from the DoT said.

In 2007, the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) scheme was launched to provide subsidy support for setting up and managing 7,871 infrastructure sites (telecom towers) in 500 districts in specified rural and remote areas.

Telecom companies Bharti Airtel, BSNL, Aircel, Idea Cellular, Reliance and Vodafone were the service providers under the scheme.

The delays under the shared mobile infrastructure scheme were recently the subject matter of controversy, the note added.

“In the light (of matter), I desired that a status report be submitted in respect of the site commissioning of towers by Infrastructure Providers (IPs) under various agreements entered into by USOF with private operators, including BSNL," Sibal said in the note.

“The status of commissioning of mobile Base Transceiver Systems (BTSs) by the Universal Service Providers (USPs), including BSNL," the note added.

According to the internal note, out of the total 7,871 towers and sites, only 7,289 have been commissioned till now and 64 are yet to be commissioned.

Similarly, out of the total 21,849 BTSs to be commissioned, there is still a shortfall of 6,640 BTSs that are yet to be commissioned, resulting in pendency of 30.39% till date.

Service providers have given various reasons for delays in the scheme. For example, RCom had contended that the delay in rolling out mobile services was due to land issues and had asked the USOF to drop four pending sites in Kerala.

State-run BSNL, on the other hand, attributed delays in rolling out services to insurgency, land disputes and natural calamities.

Bharti Airtel contended that sites in Bihar and Orissa, which were provided by the company to BSNL and RCom, were pending due to non-availability of DG sets at the sites.

“It is clear that there have been delays in the commissioning of infrastructure sites in each of the clusters. It is also clear that none of the USPs has been able to commission all mobile BTSs in time," the note said.

Sibal had come under scrutiny after a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court alleging that the minister has favoured a private operator by reducing the penalty.

A report from the panel would streamline the functioning of the USOF for future agreements as well, officials said.