Untangling the OFC mess

Many of the street vendors were rvicted on Avenue road in Bangalore on Friday. Photo Srikanta Sharma R.road digging

Is tech city Bengaluru on the brink of a digital blackout, sparked by a belated BBMP drive to take out every inch of unauthorized Optic Fibre Cables (OFC)? How effective will this drive be, when a nexus of local Palike officials and telecom players has entangled the city in an unregulated mesh of underground and overhead cables?

By all accounts, the problem is massive. A Palike panel had found that 90% of the estimated 55,000 kms of cables laid underground in the city are illegal. So are majority of the overhead cables, the length of which exceed 8,000 kms. But labeling the drive as ‘coercive,’ the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has contested the Palike
claim.

Cornered consumers

Trapped between a belated civic agency overdrive and a compromised distribution system, the paying consumers find themselves cornered. The Association cites ‘huge outages’ in broadband and mobile telephony to cry ‘halt’ to, what it alleges, the ‘unwarranted action’ by the BBMP. For emphasis, it draws attention to 700 mobile towers affected by the drive.

Now, will this mess be untangled in a hurry? Bengaluru Development Minister G Parameshwara has already articulated the government’s strategy: Impose heavy penalties. The Palike, he says, will impose a fine of Rs 25 lakh on both government agencies and private firms caught drawing cables with permission.

But how will this kill the deeply entrenched nexus? The officials who allowed the illegal cables and mobile towers should be punished too, notes Jayamahal corporator N K Gunashekar.

Mobile tower link

The OFC cables cannot be seen in isolation from the mobile towers. Of the estimated 10,000 towers in the city, the telecom companies have only declared about 6,500, he informs. To regularise, the Palike had stipulated a one-time fee of Rs 50,000 per tower. “BBMP has been able to collect only about Rs 4 crore from these towers. There is a system of No Objection Certificates, Occupation Certificates and safety certificates to sanction a tower. But many were allowed without any of these.”

The audacity of the cable-laying contractors is seen to be believed. Low-hanging cables that pose a threat to both pedestrians and motorists are all across the city. Freshly asphalted roads are wantonly cut, but not filled up properly. On TenderSURE roads, equipped with underground utility ducts, the cables are taken over-ground to bypass the costs involved. Cables are also found lying on shoulder drains, a crude way to cut costs and evade tax.

Blatant violations

But how do these blatant violations escape the Palike’s notice? The process, as a Palike insider explains, works this way: Telecom firms get the necessary approval from the BBMP head office to lay cables in a particular area. Locally, the actual process is not monitored properly. Local officials look the other way when permissions obtained to lay 50 metres are used to cut the road and lay 500 metres. These violations are not communicated to the head office.

The Palike can earn over Rs 300 crore per year as revenue from the telecom firms if the OFC cables and towers are efficiently regulated, notes Gunashekar, who has served as Chairman of BBMP’s Standing Committee on Taxation and Finance.

Balancing demand, rules

Intense competition and price wars have created a huge demand for mobile internet and broadband services. Being a startup hub and a magnet for thousands of data-hungry households and entrepreneurs, Bengaluru contributes hugely to this demand. How will the Palike cope up?

Striking a balance between the crying need for data access and an effective regulatory system would require the two parties to sit together first. But BBMP officials say, every time they call a meeting, the telecom firms send their local, junior officers. “These officers always buy time saying their higher-ups are in Delhi or Mumbai. We don’t hear from them after the meetings,” says an official.

However, COAI, which represents the telecom firms, does not agree. “It is not true. We are more than ready to sit and talk. But by cutting our lines, they are in violation of law that says no telecom connection can be disrupted. Senior officials of the Telecom Department (DoT) have all contacted the Chief Secretary and BBMP but there has been no response,” explains COAI Director General, Rajan S Mathews.

Road-cuts both ways

Road-cutting is another area of contention. The Palike blames the telecom firms for indiscriminate cutting without proper restoration. During 2016, as many as 311 potholes were formed after the roads were dug up to lay OFC cables and not properly repaired. COAI has a counter: Civic agencies themselves cut the telecom firms’ fibres frequently, creating big disturbances in connectivity.

Could mandating dedicated underground ducts for all roads as a standard practice eliminate these issues? Palike officials say these ducts are part of the design of white-topped roads. Arguably, this will be a costly exercise but a potentially long-lasting solution. But before this becomes a reality, BBMP could start with ensuring that it works at least on TenderSURE roads.

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Untangling the OFC mess

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