Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China next month, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has sanctioned Rs 450 crore to state-owned telecom operator BSNL for ramping up mobile connectivity in Arunachal Pradesh.
The mandate of the project, which was cleared last month, is to boost Arunachal Pradesh’s teledensity from one of the lowest in the country to close to 90 per cent within a span of 12 months and comes in the wake of the commencement of work to develop six airports in Arunachal Pradesh in February this year and the reported fast-tracking of road connectivity through the trans-Arunachal highway project.
Prime Minister Modi is likely to visit China from May 14 to 16. The focus on improving connectivity in Arunachal Pradesh is crucial ahead of the visit, considering that China lays claims on as much as 90,000 square km in the eastern sector, which includes much of the border state.
If BSNL were to have undertaken the project on its own, without the fund infusion from the Centre, chances are that the retail tariffs could have shot up from an average of 70 paise a minute to up to Rs 6 per minute for the approximately 8 lakh telecom subscribers in the state.
The provision of Rs 450 crore to BSNL means that the retail tariffs would remain unchanged.
Alongside from the fund infusion, the CCS also granted BSNL the Right of Way (ROW) to help simplify the procedure for environmental clearances required for the installation of telecom infrastructure in the border state. BSNL is already executing projects involving the installation of 1,893 GSM towers in the state, apart from laying of optical fiber cable, both underground and aerial, to the tune of more than 3,000 km.
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) figures from 2013, Arunachal Pradesh had a wireless teledensity of 47 (in terms of percentage of the population covered), well below the national average of 70, with only Assam (46) that has a worse record. The Trai figures suggest that close to 56 per cent of the villages in Arunachal Pradesh were uncovered by telecom service providers, the worst in the country by a distance.
Responding to a query on BSNL’s investment plan in Arunachal Pradesh, AN Rai, BSNL’s director (enterprise), said: “The efforts to improve connectivity in the Northeast had been underway for a few years now, but now there is a lot of emphasis placed by the government on Arunachal Pradesh. BSNL has limited resources, but now that the government has pitched in, efforts have been fast-tracked.”
The Trai had flagged the involvement of multiple agencies and the absence of a clear mandate in hampering its ability to obtain ROW permissions, the absence of which presented a major roadblock in rolling out telecom services in the north east. Supply of electricity is restricted to 14 hours a day even in the larger cities of Arunachal Pradesh.
Most parts of Arunachal Pradesh are mountainous with 81.2 per cent of the state’s geographic area under the forest cover, according to the Department of Environment and Forests (Arunachal Pradesh).
“The lack of road connectivity, erratic power, low population density, apart from the difficult terrain, makes it uneconomical for telecom providers without the help of the government to improve teledensity in the region,” said Rai.