In a relatively short period of its existence, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has provided exceptional telecom services in southern India in the face of intense competition from private telecom operators.
THE publicly owned telecom giant, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), operates the seventh largest network in the world. Although it is only four years old, its legacy can be traced to the time when it offered telecom services as part of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The southern wing of its operations has always been exceptional, particularly in terms of introducing new technologies, and providing service of a high quality to its customers.
In the changed scenario after liberalisation in the last decade, BSNL has coped with pressures to explore new territories while facing competition from private telecom service providers in a range of operations. Despite the difficulties that go with its status as a public sector company, particularly in terms of its ability to meet market pressures in time, it has played a stellar role in defending the public good. In particular, BSNL has acted as a strong countervailing force at a time when consumers suffered at the hands of profit-gouging private telecom companies.
Nothing illustrates this better than the manner in which BSNL has stabilised the mobile services market. Despite its late entry - as the fourth mobile service provider in Tamil Nadu - it caught the imagination of the market. Long queues of people in front of BSNL's Customer Service Centres, to get mobile connections bear testimony to their faith in BSNL - they would rather wait to get BSNL's service than subscribe to the mobile service of private operators.
BSNL has always performed well in Chennai. In fact, its average revenue per user (ARPU) in Chennai has been among the highest in the country for a long time. Chennai Telephones, which covers the metropolitan area of the city, is one of BSNL's main units in the country. Its operations in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, covered by its Tamilnadu Circle, have always been exceptional. While these two circles are readily recognised because of people's contact with them on a daily basis, two other divisions - the Southern Telecom Region and the Southern Telecom Projects (STP) - are not generally in the limelight.
Covering an area that roughly corresponds to the Chennai Metropolitan Area, Chennai Telephones is a major unit of BSNL. It covers 1,105 sq km with 207 telephone exchanges - 39 main exchanges and the rest remote exchanges. It provides almost 10 lakh landline connections in the city, against a capacity of 13.45 lakh lines. It also provides Wireless in Local Loop services to 26,000 subscribers. However, it is in the business of cellular telephony that Chennai Telephones has charted a new path, and registered an explosive growth since May 2003. Starting with about 49,000 subscribers at the time of its launch in May 2000 - most of them pre-paid subscribers - the subscriber base crossed the 3,00,000 mark in September 2004.
Chennai Telephones has had to adopt a more customer-friendly approach in the face of this explosive growth. It has established Sangamam, a state-of-the-art call centre, regarded as the best of its kind in the country. It has also increased the number of towers in the city from 120 to 230. Plans are afoot to increase this to 300 soon. Recognising the popularity of its mobile service, Chennai Telephones has already placed orders for equipment to augment its mobile telephony capacity by a further 4.5 lakh lines.
The landline service is not far behind. Chennai Telephones has plans to provide value-added services using its widespread landline capacity, much of which has already been upgraded by optical fibre. This will enable it to provide top-quality broadband services. K. Brahmadathan, Chief General Manager, Chennai Telephones, told Frontline that broadband services are likely to be launched by the end of 2004. In order to counter the lacklustre demand for its basic phone services, Chennai Telephones has also launched attractive schemes for people opting for landline connections. This has already had the effect of arresting the number of "surrenders" of landline connections. Brahmadathan pointed out that despite the surrenders, there has been a substantial increase in new connections. Much of Chennai Telephones' attention in recent times has been focussed on addressing customer complaints by adopting a more friendly approach. New and better-equipped Customer Care Centres, faster and easier options for paying bills and quicker redress of billing-related complaints form a crucial part of Chennai Telephones' efforts to keep its customers happy.
Serving a population of over 56 million people, the Tamilnadu Circle is one of the major units of BSNL. It has 18 Short Switching Areas (SSA), covering the 29 districts in the State. There are almost 3 million working connections, and 1,835 Subscriber Trunk Dialling stations in the State. All 17,899 panchayat and revenue villages in the State and the Union Territory of Pondicherry are covered by BSNL's network. Although the number of active landlines has fallen marginally in the Circle, it has been more than made up by the rapid increase in mobile telephone services. The number of cellular connections in the Circle has increased sharply from 1.6 lakhs in March 2003 to 5.87 lakhs in September 2004.
The Tamilnadu Circle plans to provide broadband services, which are a part of Phase II of its National Internet Backbone (NIB-II) project, in all district headquarters soon. In order to differentiate the quality of its service from the broadband services offered by private operators, BSNL plans to offer value-added services on its broadband to more than 200 cities in India soon. Apart from high-speed Internet services, BSNL is planning to offer Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), video conferencing and games, cable TV, video-on-demand and other facilities. It also plans to offer other valued-added services such as firewall and encryption services.
Headquartered in Chennai, the Southern Telecom Project (STP) is entrusted with the mandate of planning, surveying and executing BSNL's long distance projects for laying optical fibre in the southern States of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. In doing this, it employs cutting-edge technologies such as SDH and Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM). The STP is also entrusted with the responsibility of executing long-distance microwave and data networks in the region.
The Multi Protocol Label Switching Virtual Private Network (MPLSVPN), which covers 10 major cities in the region, was launched in May 2003. This project was planned and executed by the STP. With this service, BSNL has been able to offer dedicated optic fibre networks to corporate customers. This enables large-sized corporates, with operations spread across the country, to enjoy the benefits of a private network of their own.
Since then, the STP has also implemented the NIB-II project, which is being implemented in four phases:
Project 1: MPLS-based Internet Protocol infrastructure in 71 cities.
Project 2.1: Access Gateway Platform for Narrowband.
Project 2.2: Access Gateway Platform for Broadband.
Project 3: Sevices Platform consisting of messaging, provisioning, billing, customer care and enterprise management system.
The Southern Telecom Region (STR) functions as the bandwidth provider for the region - not only to BSNL but also to the private telecom operators. It provides bandwidth on an "anyone-anywhere-anytime" basis. The STR maintains the 12 main Trunk Automatic Exchanges (TAX), located in the five major cities of Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ernakulam and Coimbatore. It currently maintains almost 52,000 route kilometres (RKM) of optic fibre, which is dedicated for long-distance operations in the southern region. The ring structure of the long distance circuit, characterised by "self-healing" capability, ensures uninterrupted communication among the nodes of traffic. All the district headquarters and 90 per cent of the taluk headquarters have been covered by this ring structure of optic fibre, which ensures that the chances of communication lines snapping are extremely remote. This extensive coverage, by optic fibre, ensures that the STR occupies a unique position in the Indian transmission network.
In August 1997, the Network Management Centre was established in order to ensure a smooth flow of traffic. Established at a cost of Rs.50 crores, the Centre manages long distance traffic flowing through the region. The centre has resources necessary to re-configure the network for such exigencies by issue of remote commands to the various Trunk Automatic Exchanges (TAX) spread over the four southern States. The Centre is now connected to 78 TAXs in the region.
There are plans to commission a nationwide network management system (NNMS), so that the entire national network, covering 332 TAXs can be monitored from the centralised location. This will enable real-time monitoring of the long-distance network.