January 28, 2024

BSNL’s Revival: Tall Claims and Bitter Truths

P Abhimanyu

ON the one side, the government is making tall claims about the revival of BSNL. However, on the other side, this public sector telecommunications company is sinking deeper into the crisis than ever before. Tens of lakhs of customers are deserting BSNL every month and are migrating to Jio and Airtel.

As per the data released by the TRAI, 22,20,654 customers have left BSNL in August, 2023. Likewise, 23,26,751 customers have left the Company in September, 2023. This is apart from the 77 lakh customers who have left BSNL in the year 2022. During the same period, Jio and Airtel have gained customers massively. For example, in September, 2023 alone Jio gained 34,75,488 new customers and Airtel gained 13,20,256 new customers.

It is needless for us to state that BSNL is facing such a dire situation only because of its inability to provide high speed data service to its customers. While Reliance Jio and Airtel have already rolled out their 5G service throughout the country, BSNL is struggling to compete with them taking 2G and 3G technologies.

Already three packages have been announced by the government for the revival of BSNL. The government claims that it has given lakhs of crores of rupees, as well as state-of-the-art technologies for the revival of this public sector telecommunications company. The first revival package was announced on October 23, 2019. Thereafter, two more revival packages have been announced. However, BSNL is facing a crisis that has never been witnessed before. Even though the union cabinet took decision to allot 4G spectrum to BSNL four years and three months ago, the launching of BSNL‘s 4G service is nowhere in sight.

When this being the fact, Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of communications has made the following statement regarding BSNL‘s launching of 4G service. The Economic Times dated May 24, 2023 carried the following news item based on the minister’s statement. 

BSNL 4G to Go Live in Next 2 Weeks; 5G by December: Ashwini Vaishnaw

“BSNL has started rolling out of 4G network with 200 sites, and after a three-month trial, it will launch an average of 200 sites per day, Union IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Wednesday. The minister said the 4G network of BSNL will be upgraded to 5G by November-December”.   

It is already eight months since the above statement was made by the minister. This is nothing but a totally misleading statement. Whatever the minister told, remains only on paper till today. In May, 2023, BSNL placed an advance purchase order with the Tata Consultancy Services, valued at around Rs 15,000 crore, for the supply of 4G equipments. But, the fact of the matter is that neither the TCS nor any other Indian telecommunication equipment manufacturer is having proven 4G technology with them. The 4G equipments meant to be supplied by the TCS to BSNL, are still undergoing field trials in Punjab. It is a billion dollar question when this field trial would be completed and installation of BSNL’s 4G equipments will be commenced by the TCS. 

The CMD BSNL has informed the unions and associations that the commissioning of BSNL’s 4G equipments by the TCS would be completed by October 2024. Even this target date of October 2024 is too long, considering the dire situation in which BSNL has been placed. However, it seems even meeting this target date has become a distant dream now.

Now, the question is, why is BSNL placed in such a critical situation? The answer is, two decisions taken by the present government, in connection with BSNL’s 4G launching, has pushed the company neck deep into trouble. Firstly, after the announcement of the union cabinet’s  decision in October 2019, for the allotment of 4G spectrum to BSNL, the company decided to upgrade its existing 49,300 4G compatible BTSs (base transceiver stations). BSNL sought government’s permission for this upgradation. However, permission was denied. Had this permission not been denied, BSNL would have launched its 4G service at least three years ago.

Secondly, BSNL is denied parity with the private telecom companies, in the matter of purchasing its 4G equipments. All the private telecom companies – Jio, Airtel and Vodafone Idea have purchased their 4G and 5G equipments only from international manufacturers like Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. However, BSNL is mandated by the government to procure its 4G equipments only from Indian manufacturers. On this ground, BSNL was forced to cancel its tender floated in March 2020, for purchasing 1,00,000 BTSs from international manufacturers. 

Both the above mentioned two decisions of the government are believed to have been taken consciously, to benefit the private telecom companies. This is what is exactly happening now. Due to non-availability of high speed data service with BSNL, its customers are deserting the company massively and are migrating to Jio and Airtel. Under the banner of the joint forum, employees have organised a series of agitations like human chains, march to Raj Bhawans, dharna at Jantar Mantar etc demanding immediate launching of 4G service by BSNL. Will the government remove the hurdles that it has created in this respect?