Telcos say network cries for expansion in core areas but the BBMP is still sitting on rules

The prolonged wrangle between telecom operators/ISPs (internet service providers) and the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) over laying charges and rentals for the optical fibre cable (OFC) network is far from resolved.

But, bearing the brunt of this two-year-old bureaucratic tangle is the consumer. For, the clampdown on laying cables in the city has meant that most ISPs are running over capacity and cannot provide fresh connections. This leaves consumers with no choice but to settle for smaller service providers, who may not offer the kind of service or the tariffs the consumer wants.

Take the case of 32-year-old software engineer Bhavesh (name changed), who says broadband is “an essential” as his job depends on it. When he moved to a new place near J.P. Nagar, his ISP told him they couldn’t transfer the broadband connection for two months. The only option in the area was broadband provided by a cable TV network, which he claims was slow and full of glitches. “Where is the choice? And they call it the IT capital!” he remarks.

Crippling effect

Telecom operators contend that in many core areas (where broadband lines were laid in the early phase) the network is crying for expansion. Several ISPs told The Hindu that the dispute with the BBMP has had a crippling effect on Bangalore’s broadband network. This is particularly important given that the most networked city in the country has an internet penetration of only around 18 per cent. Nearly a third of households have computers but barely 15 per cent of them have internet connections, according to Census 2011.

ISP sources claim they are “not averse” to paying for laying OFCs. However, the matter of OFC rentals has been “entirely arbitrary” with the BBMP initially quoting Rs. 120 per metre on a monthly basis.

Rules not framed

Six months after the BBMP submitted in the High Court (responding to a plea by telecom companies/ISPs against rentals) that it would frame regulations before levying charges, it is yet to act on it. Meanwhile, it is moving to issue sanctions for fresh lines against a “one-time initial laying charge” of Rs. 600 per metre. BBMP Chief Engineer M.C. Prakash said that the palike is “still in the process of framing rules and regulations on the rental aspect of it”. BBMP sources also said that required amendments were being made to the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act 1976; however, the government order is not yet out.

Unfair clause?

But, what has the telcos/ISPs up in arms is the fact that the sanction forms have a “blind clause” which asks them to sign an undertaking that they will fork out any rental charge imposed by the authority at a later date. N. Venkataraman, senior Supreme Court advocate representing 12 private companies in this case, terms it “wholly unacceptable”. “How can one sign such a statement? The court made it clear that the BBMP has little authority to impose levy unless clear regulations are drawn up.” He said companies were willing to go back to court as the “form clearly violated the High Court order.”

Mr. Venkataraman dubs the amount quoted as monthly rental as “absurd”. “Most States are trying to promote the network as it is seen as important infrastructure. And even those that have imposed a levy — such as Tamil Nadu — have quoted Rs. 10 per month. If telcos pay Rs. 120 per metre per month, their broadband business will become unsustainable.”

BBMP claims that more than half the OFC lines in the city are “illegal or unsanctioned”. It also undertook on a “fibre-cutting drive”, where these illegal connections were cut, driving many wired Bangaloreans up the wall. The issue had raised a storm in the BBMP Council after councillors alleged that administrators and councillors had illegally sanctioned thousands of kilometres of OFC network, despite a Council resolution preventing it.

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