Connecting India

Print edition : October 10, 2003

BSNL, the telecom titan, is expanding its base network to provide affordable and effective communication facilities to all citizens and at the same time offering a variety of value-added services to meet the needs of the changing economy.

IN its present form it is just three years old, but it has a history of 150 years of service in connecting the nooks and corners of the country. That is Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited - BSNL in short, which has been striving to live up to its motto of "Connecting India", with a countrywide network catering to a variety of telecommunication needs of the growing population.

Prithipal Singh, Chairman and Managing Director of BSNL.-KAMAL NARANG

Set up on October 1, 2000, to operate telecommunication services, which were earlier being operated by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and prior to that by the Post and Telegraph Department, BSNL has grown into one of the largest public sector enterprises with fixed assets worth more than Rs.90,000 crores.

The growth of BSNL is synonymous with the telecommunication revolution that has taken place in the country, triggered by the convergence of technologies and catalysed by the global Information Technology (IT) revolution. In the realm of telecommunications, the change from basic telephony to voice, video and data services and from bandwidth on demand to virtual private networks (VPN) has been more pronounced. BSNL has kept pace with the global trend in providing connectivity based on state-of-the-art technology.

It has been expanding its basic network to achieve the core objective of the National Telecom Policy of providing affordable and effective communications for the citizens, and at the same time making a foray into a variety of value-added services to maintain a balance between universal service to all uncovered areas, including rural areas, and high-level services capable of meeting the needs of the country's changing economy.

The countrywide basic telephone service is provided by BSNL through 32,000 electronic exchanges, 326 digital Trunk Automatic Exchanges and digitsed Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). All of these are interlinked by over 2.4 lakh kilometres of optical fibre cable (OFC).

The public sector company is far ahead of its rivals in basic services, claiming nearly an 85 per cent share of the subscriber base and over a 90 per cent share in terms of revenue. Its penetration can be gauged by the steadily rising number of subscribers in both urban and rural areas not only for fixed line telephones but also for its mobile, Internet and other services. The number of landlines has registered a quantum jump from 21.6 million to around 43.5 million over the past four years, which is almost equal to the number of landlines added over the previous five decades.

Recognising the rising expectations and requirements of customers, BSNL has redefined the term `telecom service' by introducing value-added services in the form of Intelligent Network (IN). This offers cost-effective solutions to meet the precise needs of customers. IN provides a framework to create various services in a centralised place independent of the switch.

ONE of the services provided under IN is Free Phone Service, which enables the paying of the call charges by the called person instead of the caller. This is ideal for the service and tourism industry. Another service under IN is Premium Rate Service, which would help professionals to sell priced information or consultation on phone.

Yet another IN service - Indian Telephone Card - offers pre-paid facility for making local, STD or ISD calls from any telephone. Other IN services are Virtual Private Network, which enables programming of normal telephones to work as cheaper and flexible nationwide private network; tele-voting to conduct opinion polls; Account Calling Card, which is similar to India Telephone Card and can be used for having a permanent account with BSNL; and Universal Number, which provides a unique number nationwide.

While BSNL occupies the first position in basic services, it is second in mobile services. The Wireless in Local Loop (WLL) system connects subscribers to PSTN using radio frequency signals as a substitute for conventional wires for all or part of the connection between the subscribers and the telephone exchange. The WLL relieves congestion of connections in the normal cable/wire based network in urban areas and enhances connectivity in remote and scattered rural areas. But compared to its competitors, who took eight years to reach 1,545 towns in this segment, BSNL has reached 1,200 towns since the launch of its mobile services in October 2002. In doing so it has disproved the widely prevalent impression that the private sector is more efficient than public sector enterprises.

This achievement is attributed to the work culture of its employees. Its staff ratio has been brought down from 30 per 1,000 lines to nine, which is no mean achievement. In cellular operations its staff ratio is just one per 600 connections and this has enhanced its competitive edge. Plans are afoot to improve further the staff ratio position by outsourcing such non-core functions as bill collection and customer care. The company has geared itself to expand its cellular network to cater to an increasing number of subscribers. It envisages a subscriber base of 10 million by next year.

The mobile service Cell One launched by BSNL in October 2002 has turned out to be a remarkable success story. Within six months of launch it has penetrated the market in which large multinational corporations and Indian companies had been well entrenched and has secured an 18 per cent share. In other words, every fifth mobile user has a BSNL connection. The cellular service, based on state-of-the-art GSM technology, has 3.5 million subscribers. A significant aspect of BSNL's growth in mobile services is that 95 per cent of its subscribers are first-time users of mobile phone, which means it has created a new market wherever it has set foot.

There is yet another aspect, which makes BSNL different from other mobile service operators. In the case of other cellular services there are more pre-paid than post-paid customers. But in the case of Cell One more than 50 per cent of the users fall in the category of post-paid customers. This is attributed to the attractive tariff plans offered by BSNL with lower entry barriers especially for those owning BSNL landline too. In addition to the attractive tariff plan, the simplicity of the plans with no hidden costs has made Cell One more popular. The nation-wide reach of BSNL, the facility of one number roaming across the country and the value-added services like Voice Mail Service, Short Messaging Service, Intelligent Network Service, Unified Messaging Service and Wireless Application Protocol, have also contributed to the popularity of Cell One.

The modest tariff naturally led to a fall in revenues from voice-based services. To offset this, BSNL has embarked on a plan to offer broadband services. The ASDL is the technology chosen by BSNL for delivering adequate bandwidth. This will not require the relaying of the existing copper connections and as such should help protect the investment already made. Moreover, BSNL is toying with a plan to launch a franchisee programme for the broadband business, based on revenue sharing.

Another initiative taken by BSNL envisages reorienting its corporate marketing by appointing Corporate Account Managers and forging new relationships with network integrators like Wipro and HCL for offering total networking solutions to business houses. The Corporate Account Managers are empowered to offer volume discounts and match the tariff plans of competitors. This implies that commercially important customers (CICs) can now bargain on the prices of various services, including calling rates. In addition, a Corporate Group Billing Scheme has been introduced, which provides for charging all phones of a company, its subsidiaries and sister concerns under one common bill. A consolidated monthly bill for all connections will be issued on the allotted group number. Discounts are offered, depending on the extent of usage. BSNL has also deployed a countrywide network management and surveillance system, which ensures uninterrupted flow of traffic to CICs.

THE Internet is another segment in which BSNL has shown its mettle. It is providing Internet service under the brand name "Sancharnet" throughout the country, except in Mumbai and Delhi where Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited is operating. With seven lakh connections in place, BSNL has emerged as the biggest Internet service provider (ISP) in the country. It provides free all-India roaming and enables its users to access their accounts using the same access code and user-identification (ID) from any place in the country. To cover the entire length and breadth of the country, Internet dhabas are being commissioned at all the block headquarters. It recently started the Direct Internet Access Service (DIAS) and the account-free Internet access facility in some selected cities. BSNL also provides Web-hosting services to its customers. It has also launched Internet telephony services under the name Web Fone.

Keeping pace with the global trend to provide value - added service based on the latest technology, BSNL has launched its Virtual Private Network (VPN) service based on Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology. This technology allows the service provider like BSNL to have complete control over the parameters that are critical to offering service guarantees to its customers with regard to bandwidth throughputs, latencies and availability. It also enables BSNL to offer assured growth to its customers without having to make significant investments. BSNL will now be able to offer bandwidth on demand, video conferencing, voice over IP and a host of other value-added services that could revolutionise the way corporate business functions. For the customer, the advantage lies in the reduction in networking complexity and costs and in the total elimination of the need for in-house technical workforce. Instead of setting up and managing individual point-to-point circuits between each office using a pair of leased lines, the MPLS-VPN customers need to provide only one connection from their office router to a service provider edge router.

The telecom titan, as BSNL is called, has also been making use of satellite communication facilities for improving connectivity. It has launched Remote Area Business Message Network (RABMN) based on satellite, which provides instant data communication between computers and data terminals. The network consists of the Master Earth Station (MES) with the Packet Switch located at Sikandrabad (U.P.) and very small aperture terminals (VSATs) located on the premises of the customers. The VSATs are linked to MES through the satellite. This enables interactive data communication. Besides this, high-speed data transfers and voice communication services covering the entire country are provided through HVNET, which is also satellite-based. The network for HVNET consists of a HUB station located near Thane (Maharashtra) and a number of VSATs or Personal Earth Stations located in different parts of the country. A Mobile Satellite Service based on INSAT 3-B MSS payload is also being launched. This will provide encoded voice/data/fax services among mobile terminals, encoded voice/data/fax service between mobile terminals and fixed line users on PSTN for national and international calls.

CUSTOMER care is an important element in the management strategy of BSNL. It has initiated several measures to raise the quality of customer care to international standards. Pagers are being given to the outdoor staff for speedy rectification of faults. The majority of the local network is built up on jelly-filled and OFC. Internal distribution points are being provided on the customer's premises to eliminate faults arising from overhead wires. Digital loop carrier (DLC) and WLL systems are being used extensively to improve the reliability of external plant. Remote line units and remote subscriber units are being provided to reduce the length of copper cables. Call Centres are being set up across the country to provide single window solutions to customers. The procedure for restoration of telephones disconnected because of the non-payment of bills has been simplified and powers delegated to those in charge of the secondary switching area.

As part of its plan to meet the varied needs of customers, the BSNL has proposed to upgrade its over one million STD PCOs into Information Centres equipped with computers providing Internet facilities. It is working out schemes to make available finance to the PCO operators to buy the necessary hardware for this purpose.

Recently, BSNL came out with some promotional schemes for all its services. To promote the mobile service it has offered a special package for students. The landline connection is now available to defence personnel and war widows without any registration or booking charges. For Sancharnet users, it has offered a free 50-hour Internet service for 60 days. It has proposed to provide SMS facility over fixed-line telephones too. For this, special instruments will be provided to the customers.

With all these initiatives and proposed investment of Rs.24,000 crores over the next two years, BSNL expects to revolutionise the communications system in the country. To an extent, the recent decision of the government to reimburse the licence fee and spectrum charges for one more year up to March 2004 and extend the moratorium on payment of principal and interest on the loan given to the company should help ease any fiscal constraint faced in implementing the expansion plans. It would also help make up the losses on account of rural telephony operations and other socially desirable projects.

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