The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rural areas lose out in battle of WiLLs

New Delhi, Dec 22: Even as basic telephone service providers and cellular mobile operators battle it out over limited mobility, the customer—especially the one living in rural or inaccessible areas—loses. While legal wrangles over the two technologies—code division multiple access (CDMA) and global system for mobile communications (GSM)— used by basic telephone service providers and cellular mobile operators respectively, continue, villages wait for a phone to connect them to the rest of the world.

The government has set a target of increasing rural tele-density from 0.4 per cent to 4 per cent by 2003. While the cellular operators claim they do not have any VPT obligations, basic operators were committed to set up VPTs by their licence.

However, the cellular operators had to cover 50 per cent of the district headquarters in the first three years of operations and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) claims all the district headquarters have been covered.

The Group on telecom, IT and limited mobility said, “The basic concern of this group was to accelerate universal access to enable provision of telecom services at affordable rates specially in rural areas. This is particularly applicable to existing basic service providers who have been given the dispensation of using WiLL with limited mobility.”

But while both CDMA and GSM are capable of reaching far-flung and inaccessible areas, neither fixed nor cellular mobile operators want to venture into those areas because the moolah from VPTs can hardly match what they get in urban areas.

The Association of Basic Telecom Operators is quick to refute this. “We have used the CDMA technology and, in some places, even GSM, to reach villages. We are trying to help the government achieve the tele-density target,” ABTO secretary-general S. C. Khanna said.

“The Parliamentary standing committee on telecommunications and information technology recently applauded our (fixed line operators) efforts to set up phones in rural areas. We have installed more than 5,000 VPTs,” claims Khanna.

But the numbers do not add up to their claims. According to a recent presentation made by the communications ministry to the Parliamentary consultative committee of the ministry of communications and information technology, private fixed line operators have yet to install 59,758 VPTs as on March 31 2002. This leaves them with a deficit of 54,758 VPTs.

According to the Telecom Commission note, the percentage of villages that have received cellular coverage but do not have a telephone facility is very small and therefore, the cellular phone from the existing network could be used to provide village public telephones in a very small way.

Senior telecom consultant Mahesh Uppal, Telecommunications and Information System, said: “Setting up of VPTs will not solve the problem and the government needs to come out with a rural telecom policy to address the issue. The government’s vision that fixed line operators would use limited mobility to enhance accessibility and set up more VPTs has failed.”

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