Panel blocks MHA plan for cell towers in Naxal areas

The Home Ministry's push for mobile connectivity to counter Naxal insurgency is back to the drawing board as the telecom commission has turned down the Rs 5,800-crore proposal to set up mobile towers in the nine Maoist-affected states.

The Department of Telecom (DoT) is preparing a fresh feasibility report after a two-member panel of the commission said last month that the government should provide satellite phones to central paramilitary forces rather than set up towers for mobile connectivity in the Naxal-infested regions.

"The cost of setting up each tower works out to slightly more than Rs 1 crore. Further, due to insurgency in these areas, these towers are always under threat. Possibility may be explored to use other technology for example, provisioning of satellite phones which address both connectivity as well as security concerns," said the panel.

"Satellite technology may be better option in these circumstances because satellite communication facilities work in remote, inaccessible and hilly areas... At the same time, this technology option may be more economic in comparison to the current proposal," said the panel comprising member (technical) and member (finance) of the commission.

Last April, DoT moved a Cabinet proposal for Rs 1,896 crore as subsidy from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to install 1,836 towers and equipment through state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd in the nine states. It sought an extra Rs 3,911 crore for running the new towers and the existing 363 towers in these states for five years.

However, the proposal was sent back for review after objections by the Finance Ministry, then under Pranab Mukherjee, that a large subsidy was being sought from the USOF while BSNL was being nominated for executing the project without the USOF's mandatory tender process.

BSNL has subsequently "re-calculated" the project cost or the subsidy at Rs 3,792 crore, but even this is considered high by the two-member panel which supports satellite telephony.

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