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September 2, 2002
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'Our telecom services don't match world standards yet'

Union Minister for Information Technology and Communications, Pramod Mahajan completes one year in office on August 31.

Minister for Telecommunications Pramod MahajanIn an interview to Business Standard, the minister outlines his achievements, failures and the future plans for the telecom sector.

What are your major achievements in the last one year?

Two major achievements in the last on year have been increasing the tele-density in the country by 1 per cent and bringing down the long distance call tariffs by more than 50 per cent.

Other than these, rentals for limited mobility services were brought down from Rs 450 a month to Rs 200, Internet telephony was allowed and cellular services were made much more affordable. We have achieved an unprecedented growth of 25 per cent in terms of telephone connections.

We have added 1 lakh (100,000) route kilometers of optic fibre network and the universal service obligation fund has been established for rural telecom services. We have also given fiscal incentives like allowing operators to pay a reduced uniform sales tax of 4 per cent.

We reduced the Customs duty on cellular phones and exempted basic telephone connections from 'one out of six scheme' for assessing income tax.

What do you think are your failures?

We had initially planned to cover all the villages in the country with at least one telephone connection by March 2002. This has got delayed till December 2002, but we are hopeful of meeting the new deadline.

We will even cover the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir by August 15, 2003. However, there were about 100,000 villages that the private operators were supposed to cover, but they have not been able to do so. On my part, I have not been able to find a solution to this so far and this may be termed as a failure.

The second failure could be that our telecom services still do not match world-class standards.

What strategy do you have for public sector telecom companies like C-DoT, ITI and TCIL that are not doing as well as Mahanagar Telephone Nigam? Are there any plans to sell these companies off?

Firstly, these companies may not be in the pink of health, but they can not be termed as sick either. I have asked minister of state for IT and communications Sumitra Mahajan to specifically look into these companies.

We are revamping and strengthening them. As far as the question of selling these companies is concerned, I don't think we will get any buyers for them because these are involved in basic work, which no party will be interested in.

Most of the objectives of the New Telecom Policy 1999 have been met. Do you think that we now need a new policy, keeping in mind the dynamics of a competitive market?

I think at the policy level, by and large we have taken almost all decisions. Some objectives, though, still have not been met. We may come out with a programme for meeting the tele-density target. The problem in such cases has not been with the policy but with the implementation. The policy could not be implemented because of so many litigations.

I think that somewhere down the line, we should be looking at introducing single licence for all telecom services. But it will depend on the law for convergence. Our mandate is till 2004 and we have enough job at hand. A new government can bring a new five-year programme.

Do you think there is a need to change the regulatory framework considering the huge criticism for it?

The regulator does not derive its powers from the ministry but from the Act concerned and no one has pointed out any flaw in the Act. My point is that we are bringing the Convergence Bill that will create a super-regulator, making the present regulator redundant. So what is the point in amending the Act now.

However, in a match the looser blames the umpire. One of the grievances is that Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd acts like a big brother and it is not being regulated. But BSNL is not a big brother because for private operators it is a competitor.

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