The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Northeast caught in mobile tap scrap

New Delhi, Jan. 24: The communications ministry is locked in a battle with the home and defence ministries over ‘blanket’ monitoring of mobile phone calls in sensitive areas, particularly the Northeast.

The home ministry has informed the communications ministry that monitoring of wireless communication in sensitive areas is part of its civilian functions.

The defence ministry has indicated that it will permit deployment of WiLL (wireless in local loop) systems — limited mobility service — in the Northeast if it is granted monitoring access. The home ministry does not object to this.

None of this is acceptable to the service providers.

The standoff over call monitoring has stalled the spread of cellular services in the Northeast and threatens to scupper Reliance’s plan to offer limited mobility service in the region. Cellular service is available only in Guwahati in the Northeast.

Both Bharat Sanchar Nigam and Reliance Infocomm have licences to offer cellular and limited mobility services in the region.

The issue has implications beyond the Northeast. A senior executive of a cellular company said: “The demand to monitor mobile phones is likely to spill over to other regions that may be declared ‘sensitive’ by the home or defence ministry. The industry believes that it will not be able to operate commercially in a situation where there is constant monitoring of the system and network by a third party.”

Under the terms of the licence conditions, telecom operators are required to provide whatever information security and other agencies need to track down criminals and terrorists. However, this monitoring is done based on specific requests and for a limited period. At all times, the monitoring is done by the service provider.

The current spat is over the home and defence ministries’ demand for ‘blanket’ monitoring access with their own devices.

A communications ministry official said: “While the security aspect is of paramount importance and cannot be compromised under any circumstances, people residing in far-flung areas in the northeast should not be denied access to basic communication facilities. Similar systems have been installed in more vulnerable western and northern areas.”

Even BSNL, which is a government-owned company, admits that private companies will have a problem.

“Service providers have to furnish whatever information is sought by security and other agencies. But monitoring over and above this may affect the performance of the service,” said a senior BSNL official.

As a result of the standoff, the committee on frequency allocation has yet to clear BSNL’s proposal to instal even fixed phones in many regions of the Northeast.

According to a government report, “slippage in the targets to instal DELs (basic phones at home) and VPTs (village public telephones), especially in the Northeast, has been due to non-receipt of clearance from Sacfa for WiLL systems and fixed wireless terminals.”

BSNL had set out to instal 17,508 phones in the northeast, but could not reach even a sixth of the target.

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