Reliance wins licence for long-distance telephony
BSNL plans lower call rates to spur Net growth
More time for Accor to seal Great Eastern deal

New Delhi, April 1: 
The Reliance group has come up trumps in its bid to become a national long-distance or STD network operator. The licence will be issued to its telecom arm soon.

Bharti, the only other company vying for a slice of the Rs 12,000-crore market, has not hit the finishing line but sources in the communications ministry say it remains in the race.

The BJP-led coalition has been warm to the Reliance group�s ambitions of growing into a telecom major. The conglomerate, along with the Tatas and Hindustan Futuristic Communications, last week secured licences to operate fixed-line or basic telephone networks in 40 telecom circles.

A national long-distance network will knit these circles and serve as a vehicle for carrying STD calls across regions � spawning a massive captive market of basic subscribers. Other telephone operators will pay to use the infrastructure.

Reliance Infocom has started work on a nation-wide optic fibre network that will serve as the backbone for NLD services. Its only rival is Bharat Sanchar Nigam, whose STD rates are considered high. However, the dominance of the state-owned major will remain intact because it provides fixed-line services across much of the country, except in Delhi and Mumbai, where Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) lords over.

Long-distance telephone networks were opened to bidding in August last year, a month after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised an end to the government�s monopoly. No limits were set on the number of private operators who could be given licences in a policy designed to drive down domestic call tariffs through competition and foreign investment.

Foreign firms have not shown interest in these licences. Other companies or groups which were believed to be keen but have not tabled bids are the Tatas and the Mittals.

Service providers will pay a one-time entry fee of Rs 100 crore to the government, share 15 per cent of their revenues and furnish a Rs 400-crore bank guarantee. This will be refunded if the networks are rolled out on time and in the manner agreed, including the obligation to service backwaters.

Firms will not be allowed to carry forward unfilled network obligations from one phase to the other. Operators must have a minimum paid-up capital of Rs 250 crore, and those who hold 30 per cent or more should have prior experience in telecom.

Of the revenue share, 10 per cent will go to the government as licence fee while 5 per cent will be channelled into a fund to finance telecom expansion as part of the universal service obligation. Government-owned existing players will not have to pay the entry fee but will share 15 per cent of their revenues, all of which will go to the universal service fund.


Calcutta, April 1: 
For Net freaks forced to scale down their rendezvous with the virtual world, stalked by the fear of a huge phone bill, happy hours are here to the rescue.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) plans to introduce �happy hours,� by increasing the pulse rate of local calls from 11 pm to 6 am.

Sources said the move is expected to foster the growth of the internet in the country.

Currently, BSNL charges local calls on the basis of a three-minute pulse rate, which stands at Rs 1.20. Now it is considering a higher pulse duration during happy hours, at the same cost.

However, BSNL chairman D. S. P. Seth refused to comment on the issue.

Sources said telephone charges have been found to inhibit the growth of the internet.

�Internet service providers like Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd have already provided �happy hours� for the benefit of their internet customers. But it is the telephone charges which discourage Net buffs and consequently slow down the growth of this medium,� they added.

As of now, an hour of surfing costs Rs 24 in a dial-up connection. But if the pulse rate is increased from three minutes to five minutes, the cost will significantly come down to Rs 14.40 per hour of surfing.

�But the loss in revenue will be more than compensated by the substantial increase expected in the volume of traffic,� sources said.

They said that in India, the internet is mostly used during office hours. �Even if there is a personal computer at home, the prohibitive telephone bills discourage surfing at home. That will not be a problem once the costs are reduced,� they added.

The move will help BSNL on another front too, as the company has an ambitious plan to provide internet connections in at least 300 cities, in the next few months.

Seth said BSNL�s target is to provide very good connectivity for its subscribers in the next couple of years.

�Our services will be at par with the international standards and bandwidth will not be a problem,� he promised.

The telecom major is in the process of acquiring a 2.5 GB bandwidth to provide the best internet services in the country. It is also setting up over 400 nodes to provide internet connections.

Seth said the company has decided to invest Rs 16,000 crore by the end of the next financial year to expand its network, as well as to augment its technology.

While the majority of the investment will be generated from internal accruals, he said the company may need to go in for �some borrowing� to part-finance its expansion projects.

Meanwhile, BSNL has already crossed the target of providing 53.5 lakh new telephone connections in the country.

�The number of new connections will be considerably higher than the target before the end of this fiscal,� Seth said.


Calcutta, April 1: 
The state government has set a fresh deadline for the French firm, Accor Asia Pacific, to submit the draft agreement for transfer of control of the state-run Great Eastern Hotel.

Talking to The Telegraph, state tourism minister Manab Mukherjee said: �The French firm wanted certain clarifications from us and we have submitted the required papers. They are now preparing the draft memorandum of understanding (MoU). The entire process is expected to be over within a month�s time.�

However, though the minister expected the deal to be completed soon, sources acquainted with the developments said nothing was likely to move before the next assembly elections.

In fact, state tourism secretary Pranab Roy is scheduled to meet Accor officials in New Delhi next week to thrash out differences between the two parties, Writers� Building sources said.

Mukherjee, however, was very optimistic. �There is no difference in opinion among the two parties. All things have been sorted out. Great Eastern is surely being handed over to Accor Asia.�

Accor was to enter into an MoU with the state government by December 20.

The French hotel major has objected to the revision in the salaries of hotel staff even as talks were underway.

The government revised salaries in line with the recommendations of the Fourth Pay Commission, which gave the hotel�s 475 employees a hefty increase in their pay packets.

The French firm said it will spend Rs 15 crore on a voluntary retirement package, which is now expected to cost more following the salary revision.

Mukherjee, however, dismissed the allegations.

�Enhancement of salary was a long pending issue and had nothing to do with Accor. I am also not aware of the objections raised by the French firm on the issue.�

Accor�s proposal envisages the retrenchment of all employees through a VRS package. However, it has said a screening committee will select employees below 45 years of age.

Great Eastern Hotel has 525 workers, of which 50 are contract workers and rest are permanent. Of the 475 permanent employees, only 170 are below 45 years of age and, therefore, eligible to appear before the screening panel.


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