India’s ailing BSNL places 4G order with Nokia, ZTE amid controversy

BSNL merger controversy
A woman speaks on her mobile phone in front of the logo of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) painted on a wall outside its office in Kolkata, India. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

India’s state-run telecom operator, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), has reportedly decided to place a new order for 4G equipment from Finland’s Nokia and China’s ZTE to upgrade over 49,000 2G and 3G sites across the country. 

The move follows recent obstacles faced by the ailing telecom operator related to its phase nine 4G expansion tender for 50,000 new 4G sites.

Home-grown vendors, through their representative body, TEPC (The Telecom Equipment and Services Export Promotion Council), had alleged they were not consulted before the floating of this tender. They said that terms of this tender exclude them from bidding, and favours Chinese vendors like ZTE, besides flouting the Indian government’s ‘Make in India’ norms under the Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2017.

After the allegation, India’s Commerce Ministry asked the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the state-run telco to put the tender on hold until the TEPC complaint is resolved.

The Ministry’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) has warned of action against erring officials if found guilty of inserting clauses to restrict the entry of Indian companies in the BSNL tender as per government rule.

Reports said that BSNL swiftly came into action and promised to revise the bid document for phase nine tender to accommodate a 2017 order once the nationwide lockdown ends. 

Multinationals like Samsung, Nokia, Ericsson, and ZTE were aiming to participate in the upcoming tender and had also bought the tender document.

Interestingly, foreseeing possible delay in finalizing the tender process due to these allegations, BSNL’s six-member board approved a proposal for the procurement of 4G equipment from Nokia and ZTE under the existing contract for the phase eight of expansion.

BSNL’s board reportedly said that the proposal to procure equipment from the existing vendor was ‘technically and commercially” the best option available for a swift migration and rollout of 4G services in the country.

Notably, BSNL hasn’t received 4G spectrum from the telecom department (DoT) despite received approval from the Indian government in October 2019 as part of revival measures.

BSNL’s employee union and association, The All Unions and Associations of BSNL (AUAB), on Thursday, extended support for the telco’s phase nine 4G tender and said that local equipment players don’t have experience of managing large-scale mobile networks.

AUAB also said that BSNL could not afford to procure sub-standard equipment from inexperienced companies. 

“4G is a state-of-the-art technology; BSNL cannot afford to procure sub-standard equipment from inexperienced companies, not having proven technology. Their product is not tested or validated so far…. Further, the quality standards of their equipment have not been tested,” AUAB said in the letter.

While private telecom service providers like Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Reliance Jio offer services using Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, Samsung and ZTE radio equipment, it would be unfair to direct BSNL alone to buy local 4G equipment, which is largely untested, the AUAB said in its letter.

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