Editorial – November 2018

Sunil Bharti Mittal has staged his demand for nationalization of optical fibre cables laid across India by private telcos and BSNL. A votary of light touch regulation, Mr Mittal has invited Trai to take charge of this as a mission for nationalization of private OFC assets. His specific urging is – Trai should come out with a consultation paper and promote a regulation in which fiber becomes the national asset. His pitch is, fibre should be made available at a regulated charge to all the users, be it telecom operators or any other operator or provider needing to access fiber. Of course, all this is packaged in very benign manner, the spread of 5G rollouts. Mr Mittal raised this nationalization bogey at the second edition of the India Mobile Congress 2018, an annual event organized by the DoT and COAI. How an industry body, COAI, would lobby for nationalization of private assets, is a chapter that is yet to unfold.

The road to Public Utility declarations does not lie through nationalization of private company assets. What has been created through USO levy like BharatNet, is for common usage by all because these are public money creations. And that is the way it should stay. Any interference with this structure will create havoc and more litigations.

Meanwhile, the USO Fund is being emptied citing urgency and target completion pressures. Almost in a rambunctious style it has been said that 6 lakh km fiber will be laid by March 2019. And with this, 1.50 lakh GPs will be covered. This is phase-2 of Bharatnet. And what was the Phase-1 performance. It took 4 years to lay 3 lakh kms for 1 lakh GPs. But the tall claims have been made to push a cost escalation of 68.44 per cent. The approved cost was Rs 7,992 crore, and this has been now increased to Rs 13,461 crore. The balance available in USO Fund is Rs 49,260 crore as on Sep 30, 2018.

The USO Fund is collected from users. Escalations of this nature without reference to market price is disallowed as per CVC norms. Phantom target figures make the deal entirely spooky.