The decision of the Karnataka Home Department to migrate the Closed User Group (CUG) mobile phone numbers from the public sector Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to a private player has not gone down well with the BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU).
The union is now alleging that the government is not only stifling its own public sector enterprise (PSE), but also opening itself up to national security concerns by roping in private players.
There are currently around 38,500 CUGs, along with landlines and broadband services, used by the state police department.
‘Shocked by the decision’
BSNLEU general secretary P Abhimanyu, responding to the development, stated that they were shocked to know that the Karnataka government had decided to migrate its mobile, landline, FTTH (fibre to the home), leased circuit, and more connections from BSNL networks to Reliance Jio.
This step was against the decision of the Central government, which has directed all state governments to utilise the services of BSNL and MTNL (Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited), said the union.
On Tuesday, 21 February, the BSNLEU wrote a letter to Union Minister of Communications Ashwini Vaishnaw requesting to stop the migration of Karnataka’s connections from BSNL to Reliance Jio.
BSNLEU state president Gundappa told South First that it was the Central government that made it mandatory that the communication needs of most of the government departments, including the armed forces, be fulfilled by BSNL/MTNL — both central PSEs under the administrative control of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).
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Safety is a matter of concern
“How can the government take such an arbitrary decision where communication services for its own law enforcement agency are taken from a private agency? Won’t there be security concerns? How can the government trust a private entity that is profit-based and not a service-based PSU? Will the armed forces in India be allowed to use private mobile phone numbers as their official phone numbers then?” Gundappa asked.
BSNLEU state secretary Sudharshan HV told South First that private telecom companies use equipment imported from China, Korea, and Finland — infamous for their malware and spyware.
“There are chances that calls would get monitored, data usage tracked, data leaked, hacks, and several other concerns and threats related to privacy and security,” he said.
Sudharshan added, “Earlier, the government stopped BSNL from upgrading its equipment stating that it should focus on making indigenous ones — quoting the Atmanirbhar Bharat vision. And this was one of the reasons BSNL was stuck with 3G, while the entire world moved on to 4G and is now approaching 5G. Profit is privatised while loss is socialised here.”
He further asked how this could not be termed as “sheer favouritism” by the government.
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BSNLEU members further alleged that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the DoT took decisions in order to keep BSNL away from starting the 4G mobile service.
These decisions not only defeated the objectives of the National Telecom Policy (NTP) of 1999, but also created several hurdles for BSNL.
“The government cancelled a tender worth ₹9,000 crore floated by BSNL for upgrading its 50,000 mobile towers to 4G-compatible towers, quoting objections raised by the Telecom Equipment and Services Export Promotion Council (TEPC) through the Commerce Ministry and alleging non-participation of local manufacturers in the tender process,” Sudharshan said.
“In addition to this, recently, after the skirmishes with the Chinese army in the Galwan river valley in Ladakh, the Central government barred BSNL from purchasing any equipment from Chinese manufacturers. All the other operators have already installed equipment manufactured by China,” he added.
Sudharshan pointed out, “If BSNL has to procure such equipment, it should be from European countries, which will make BSNL spend 25 percent more than the estimated cost. Even this effort was stalled by the government under the guise of the Atmanirbhar Bharat vision.”
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‘A commercial decision’
The Karnataka police department’s decision to migrate to Reliance Jio was made based on an order passed by the state government after consultation with concerned senior police officials.
It was not by floating any tender processes or similar procedures that were followed earlier before roping in a private player to offer their services.
“This move was based on a government order dated 24 January, stating that the government approved the change of service provider from the existing CUG/SIM cards and beat SIM cards from BSNL to Reliance Jio,” Bengaluru Additional Director General of Police (Communications, Logistics, and Modernisation) S Murugan told South First.
“The department opted for Reliance Jio for two reasons — reduced tariffs and to get better quality service and improvised technology,” he added.
The work order for the migration has already been issued to Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited. The existing mobile numbers of officers and police personnel will be retained and, hence, the numbers need to be ported onto the Jio network.
Karnataka DG-IGP Praveen Sood said that this was a commercial decision, taken in accordance with the Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurement Act of 2000.
“When someone gives us a quality product at an impressive price, one would go for it. It was not our decision. It was the government’s decision and the government is going to save around ₹50 lakh with this proposal,” Sood told South First.
Porting requests would be made from each individual SIM card, with the entire porting process to be completed within a four-day window.
The department has suggested that porting requests be made in a phased manner and with the coordination of the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), Wireless, a senior police officer said.
‘Not a violation of Official Secrets Act’
While the BSNLEU state president reiterated that this decision was in clear violation of the Official Secrets Acts 1923, retired DG-IGP ST Ramesh told South First that it was not.
This was because, along with the government CUG number, any police officer would also use their personal number that would be from any network service provider and that makes no difference at all, he explained.
However, Ramesh told South First, “BSNL is a government PSE. If a government ignores its own PSE and chooses a private player, then several questions arise as to what signal it sends.”
“When it’s a private sector company… Is there not a conflict created while the government is causing confusion?”