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Welcome buzz for BSNL competitors in Andhra Pradesh

Hyderabad, Oct. 17: It’s either a secret pact with private cellular operators or a feeble stab at creating a level playing field: Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), the state-owned telephony major, has decided not to launch its CellOne and Excell services in nine important commercial towns and cities of Andhra Pradesh.

BSNL’s cellular service—which is being launched with a lot of fanfare on Saturday—will not be available in Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Rajahmundry, Guntur, Warangal, Kakinada, Tirupati and Anantpur.

BSNL’s CellOne service will be launched in 111 towns of Andhra and it is aiming to sell about 1.6 lakh cellphones over two months. CellOne is the post-paid cellular service while Excell is the pre-paid service.

The decision is believed to have been taken at the highest level: read communications minister Pramod Mahajan.

While BSNL officials here are gamely trying to trot out a lot of explanations for what seems to be a very quixotic decision, it is patently clear that these major towns are commercially important to the private operators—Bharti group’s AirTel, Tata’s Idea and Hutchison Max’s Hutch—which have together invested over Rs 2,500 crore over the past five years.

The three cellular operators have a collective customer base of three lakhs in the state and BSNL’s entry could have posed a serious threat to them.

Mahajan, who claims to be a Hyderabadi by birth but lives in Maharashtra, was the special guest of honour at a function organised last week by Tata Teleservices to mark the launch of its 1000th village public telephone (VPT) in Andhra.

In his address, Mahajan said he wanted to create a level playing field so that the private telephony operators could operate freely in the country. This gesture—leaving out nine principal cities in Andhra from CellOne’s footprint—is possibly one way to create that level playing field.

K.A. Ramaiah, BSNL’s general manager (operations) for the Andhra Pradesh circle, says the nine towns and cities were earlier chosen for the pilot project based on C-DoT equipment. However, the project did not make progress and CellOne will now be using Motorola equipment.

He said BSNL has set up a 50-seater call centre in Hyderabad to service its cellular customers in the four southern states.

Sources say Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is expected to launch the CellOne service nationwide from Lucknow—his Parliamentary constituency—on Saturday. The speculation is that he will put through a call to deputy PM L.K. Advani. Alternatively, he may choose to call his coalition partner Chandrababu Naidu.

Meanwhile, AirTel, the Bharti group’s cellular service, today launched a hybrid service called Two-n-One to compete with CellOne.

The new AirTel product combines “the convenience of pre-paid and the power of post-paid, in one connection”.

‘AirTel Two-in-One’—operates on a pre-paid module, which will provide a host of benefits to all cellular subscribers. The product, priced at Rs 999, provides free airtime worth Rs 499 on the startup kit in addition to a daily rental of Rs 10. Incoming and outgoing rates would be charged at Rs 1.15 per 30-second pulse during peak hours (8 am-9 pm) and Re. 0.25 per 30-second pulse during off peak hours (9 pm-8 am).

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