A fortnight ago, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the industry body that represents top telecom companies, including Bharti AirtelNSE 3.06 % and Reliance Jio, went to town about how Bengaluru, the IT capital, is staring at a blackout of its digital services. The association blamed the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) for the blackout, saying the civic body resorted to indiscriminate cutting of overhead optical fibre cables (OFCs) of telecom and internet service providers (ISPs).
In fact, network outages on the Outer Ring Road (ORR), where major IT firms are located, resulted in even tech parks, including Wipro’s, facing a blackout. This essentially meant that tech firms could levy a penalty of up to Rs 1 crore on the ISPs for disruption of service.
The alarmed association cautioned that the crisis would bring the city to a virtual halt, disrupting essential services like point-of-sale applications used in retail stores. It sought the intervention of the central and state governments.
This is not the first time that Bengaluru is witnessing differences between the municipal body and telecom operators. There have been instances of the BBMP cutting overhead cables that dangled from trees and electric poles and caused inconvenience to pedestrians and motorists. OFC, as per law, is supposed to be laid underground. The last drive was carried out upon the deputy chief minister’s directions in July 2018. The latest drive was prompted by citizen groups who filed police complaints against telecom operators.
“We were tired of seeing this unstructured laying of cables. After residents complained about how unsafe these cables were, specially for children and the elderly, we decided to file a police complaint,” said Vishnu Prasad H, member of Bellandur Development Forum.
First the police and then the BBMP took serious note of the complaint. The police even arrested 26 persons for trying to restore cable wires soon after they were disconnected. Apparently, ISPs were used to reconnecting wires within hours of the BBMP disconnecting them.
As networks got disrupted, operators escalated the issue. The state government intervened and the connections were restored. In a meeting held last week, the Urban Development Department (UDD) and telecom operators arrived at an agreement — the operators will be given three days, as per the principle of natural justice, to act before unauthorised cables are disconnected.
While this seems like an ad-hoc arrangement, there is no mechanism to prevent the laying of unauthorised cables in the first place. The risk of disruption due to cables being cut continues.
The country’s technology capital’s struggle for telecom services flies in the face of India’s target to provide internet connectivity with 100 mbps speed to every household by 2021. The telecom industry has blamed the BBMP for not providing basic infrastructure like ducts for laying underground cables. This, they claim, is the reason for above-the-ground fibre network.
“It is unfair on the part of the BBMP to treat all overhead cables as unauthorised when telecom operators might have obtained permission to originally lay the cables underground. Operators are often forced to move them overhead at some point when the cables are cut due to underground work by various other government agencies,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of COAI.
BBMP officials, however, believe that “cut-throat competition” in the industry and the desire to reduce cost is prompting operators to lay overhead cables with total disregard to rules. “If a customer places a request for an internet connection, operators promise the connection in less than four days. It is impossible to provide a connection in such a short span if they strictly follow the due process,” a senior officer working in the OFC section of the BBMP told ET.
The officer said the BBMP has moved the approval process online, and that it would take less than 30 days to process and approve applications from telecom operators. “Yet, the telecom operators and customers are not ready to wait even for a fortnight,” the officer said.
According to those in the know of the telecom business, laying underground OFCs cost Rs 2,500 per metre, whereas the cost is as low as Rs 300 per metre for laying above-the-ground cables. Telecom operators consider horizontal directional drilling (HDD), which has been made mandatory for all underground utilities to minimise disruption, as an expensive affair.
Almost all roads in the city, except for TenderSURE roads, have overhead cables that are drawn over trees and electric poles.
In Electronic City, also on the IT corridor, the problem is almost non-existent with nearly 90% of the cables being underground. “From the beginning, we have discouraged telecom operators from laying cables overhead. Of course, there might be a few stray cases, but largely it is underground,” said NS Rama, CEO of Electronic City Industrial Township Authority (ELCITA), the body that maintains and manages the tech hub.
N Ramesh, BBMP’s chief engineer (OFC), said that the city corporation has provided ducts in all TenderSURE roads. Ducts will be provided in other parts of the city as well, he said. “But until then the telecom operators should abide by the law and ensure cables are laid underground,” he said.
The BBMP currently charges Rs 600 per metre for laying underground cables, which the telecom operators say is expensive when compared with other cities. In fact, the department of telecommunications has introduced a unified fee structure for laying cables (Rs 80 per metre), which the state is yet to adopt. In an attempt to find a middle ground, the BBMP has even proposed a rate of ?200 per metre to the state government.
While the BBMP could learn a lesson or two from Electronic City, policy intervention is also the need of the hour. A senior bureaucrat who previously served as advisor to the state’s IT&BT department called for a “change in mindset” to handle the telecom industry.
“OFC should be considered basic infrastructure and an essential service like water and electricity. Government agencies should not treat telecom service as a revenue generator. The problem is, as long as the telecom service is in the control of the UDD, it will be seen as a source of revenue and the issue will persist,” he said.
The bureaucrat said the government should facilitate private investments to instal underground ducts. “One must understand that better internet connectivity, specially in the outer areas of the city, will naturally attract more businesses and help decongest the core areas,” he said.
Meanwhile, those who began the fight against telecom operators are pressing for some immediate action. “The government, while it starts working on a transparent policy for structured cabling, should also instal structured smart poles. This will prevent cables dangling from Bescom poles and trees haphazardly, at least until ducts are made,” said Vishnu Prasad of Bellandur Development Forum.