While the government is pushing for 5G launch across the nation, several ambitious telecom projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are moving at a snail’s pace. These include connectivity in aspirational villages, North East, Left Wing Extremism areas, and other international-bordering States.
These projects are being funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), under the Department of Telecommunications. Leading telecom operators, including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, and Bharat Sachar Nigam (BSNL) are undertaking these projects worth ₹50,000 crore.
The deadlines of these projects have been extended several times, and telecom companies are now working on a fresh deadline. For instance, in the North-East-1, where Bharti Hexacom (Airtel) and Reliance Jio had agreements with USOF in October 2021, of the 1,511 sites, only 402 towers (27 per cent) have been installed as of July 3.
The project was to be completed on April 29 (18 months), but it was extended till May 20. However, it has not been completed as yet and, according to sources, there could be another extension to complete the project.
According to sources from Bharti (Airtel) and Reliance Jio (Jio), they have completed the project, but the USOF website does not show this. The project cost was valued at ₹2,028.8 crore at the time of the agreement.
E-mails sent to Airtel and Jio with queries did not get any response. In the North East-II project also, where Airtel signed an agreement with USOF in December 2017 for installing 2,004 sites at a cost of ₹1,655.66 crore, 1,358 towers have been installed till now (68 per cent). There is no update on whether the project has been completed.
Similarly, in Meghalaya, where Bharti Hexacom had to erect 889 towers, according to the agreement on September 4, 2020, at a project cost of ₹726.65 crore, only 353 towers (40 per cent) have been installed as of July 3, 2023. The project has got four extensions till now from the original 18 months (for completion) to 30 months now (as of September 12, 2022).
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The only project which has been completed is the LWE-I, which was given to BSNL in August 2014 for 2,355 sites, at a cost of ₹1,655.66 crore for 2G-based services in 2,199 locations.
When asked about the pending projects and their expected dates of completion, Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of Communications and IT, told businessline: “There’s progress in each of the projects...each of the towers are installed at a high pace. What happens is, the progress are not shown [on the website’ till the towers are not fully installed.”