Telecom minister warns telcos against call drops

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The government has ensured transparency in the functioning of the telecom department in the one year that it has been in power, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

The minister said more industry-friendly steps such as spectrum sharing and trading guidelines are on the anvil but warned the telcos against the deteriorating quality of services. Excerpts:

What is the biggest difference you feel you have made to the telecom ministry?
The first and the foremost is that Sanchar Bhavan is free from power brokers and lobbyists. When I took charge of this ministry, there was such palpable gloom and despair all around. I have restored confidence in my officers and brought about fairness and transparency in this department.

The biggest example of that was the auction of the largest quantum of spectrum. I can say with some degree of assurance that the quarterly profits of some companies are giving good results. Therefore, the apprehension that auctions will affect the profitability of telecom operators, so far, seems to be unfounded.

When will the telecom department announce spectrum sharing and trading guidelines?
We will be ready to take the guidelines to the Cabinet by June-end.

What about the penalty provisions?
They are nearly complete. We have rationalized the entire structure and the details will soon be announced.

Will the government revisit the M&A guidelines?
A committee has met with and continues to meet the telecom industry representatives. The idea is to bring about an ease of doing business. If there is a compelling case, we will certainly change the rules.

What initiatives is the telecom department taking to improve the call quality?
This needs to be addressed on a priority basis. I have instructed the officers to think of an architecture of a disincentive to the telecom operators in case of call drops. You must understand that EMF (electric and magnetic field) radiation scare is one big factor, which is affecting the quality.

To improve call drops, we need to install more BTS (base transceiver station). Consumers and consumer activists must understand that. The WHO has said these towers are safe. If a specific case of harmful impact is brought to my notice, I will look into the matter.

Tower companies say the problem also lies with rent seeking behaviour of local governments…
Right of way and installation of BTS must be considered more favourably because our future lies in further penetration of mobile phones, networks and growth of mobile broadband. We are trying to push the internet penetration to 50 crore from 30 crore in the next two years and this ecosystem will drive higher revenue for the authorities. Don’t treat rights of way and other permissions as means to make money.

Is spectrum scarcity a big reason why the service quality is deteriorating?
Sharing and trading guidelines are coming. This government has auctioned 470MHz of airwaves in the auctions, the largest ever. Only 168MHz of the total sold airwaves came from expiry of permits. More auctions will follow. It is unfair to say there is scarcity of spectrum. We have and we will continue to auction whatever spectrum is available with us. The operators must understand that alibis don’t work. They have to improve their systems.

Will the government give a road map for spectrum availability and auctions?
Let the operators use the spectrum we have just auctioned more efficiently and appropriately.

Do you worry about the debt levels of the telecom industry?
Taking debt is an integral part of any business. I don’t think it has reached a worrying level. Each day I see news reports highlighting high quarterly profits of telecom companies, so what is the worry?

When will the government finalize its rules on net neutrality?
We are awaiting the report of both the telecom department committee and the regulator’s recommendation. However, we have firmed our broader view that there must be availability of internet for all and no discrimination in access to the internet is critical to our final policy. Internet is one of the finest creations of human minds and shouldn’t be monopolised.

Your focus areas for next year? What is the status of NOFN?
I am pushing for the revival of BSNL, MTNL. On NOFN, I have called for a meeting of all the IT ministers and the IT secretaries of India on May 29. We want to ensure active involvement of state governments in the NOFN. The idea is to have at least four or five fibres for government to deliver e-governance, equal amount of fibre pipes for BSNL and another 4 or 5 for private players. Digital India is more for the poor and the marginalized. We want to change the digital profile of the country.

How will you change the digital profile of the country?
One focus area for us has been encouraging rural BPOs. Currently, BPOs are centred around metros and big cities. We have identified 40,000 seats to be distributed proportionately as per a state’s population. An established company will hand hold these BPOs through a mandatory partnership with local entrepreneurs.

We are working out incentives and will soon have expressions of interest. State governments will have to play a major role in giving subsidy for electricity and land. We are bringing out a policy. This will be a game changer. It will also give a further push to ecommerce deeper inside the country.

What about progress in the postal department?
Postal department’s role in ecommerce has increased many folds and it will go further up. All 134,000 post offices must have hand-held devices by next year. E-banking, e-commerce, financial inclusion all these will get an impetus. Postal banking is another important area for us. We are working with the RBI for a licence.

The government is being painted anti-farmer. Your comments.
In the wake of natural calamities, we doubled the compensation to farmers. The eligibility to receive that was also lowered from a 50% crop destruction criteria to 33%. Mr Rahul Gandhi has acquired certain abilities after a long time based upon lot of homework data and prescriptions. This only makes for occasional sound bites.

There is a growing perception that the government is passive against religious intolerance…
The PM has made it amply clear that no intolerance will be tolerated. None of us support attacks on churches. In some places, these attacks were very local and were given a different spin. We condemn attacks on religious places.

How do you see the possible coming together of your key opponents in Bihar?
We are confident of victory in Bihar. This illusory attempt for merger where divorce has already taken place before the marriage itself is a desperate attempt of defeated people to save their political turf, who rarely realise that their political context of Bihar has changed fundamentally.

Source: Times of India

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