If the highly eventful Indian telecoms space were a montage, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) latest shot would stand out for pulling a trick that is both staid and stupid. The state-backed telecom operator has invited bids for its Rs 8,000 crore (~$1 billion) 4G network build-out and expansion. The budget comes out of the Rs 69,000 crore (~$9 billion) revival plan the Indian government cobbled together last year after deciding to keep the telco alive for reasons of national security and self-reliance.

Many clauses in BSNL’s tender, however, reflect the opposite. Demands such as prior experience of millions of telecommunications lines installed, or having millions of subscribers in at least two countries, are restrictive enough to exclude virtually every Indian telecom equipment manufacturer. As it is, the industry is dominated by large multinationals: the ratio of imports to exports is 10:1 in the country. What takes the cake, though, is BSNL’s requirement of turnover: 

“The bidder shall be a company having a minimum turnover of Rs 8,000 crore each in the last two years.” 

It appears BSNL, on a lark, decided to say, ‘I am rolling out a Rs 8,000 crore network, so I want Rs 8,000 crore turnover’. 

“Not just the turnover, the technical specs are such that no Indian or new company can ever fulfil it,” says the chief executive of a telecom tech manufacturer in Bengaluru. He declined to be named as he doesn’t want to publicly criticise BSNL. “It’s like saying, ‘I want a search engine built, but I want all the tech specs of Google and I want it to work better.’” 

Directionally, too, BSNL seems to be looking at the past, not future. Why else would it insist on the new 4G network to have backward integration with 3G and 2G rather than forward-integration with 5G?

“That’s because the tender has been cooked up by the incumbents—ZTE and Nokia—which have been suppliers to BSNL,” says the CEO quoted above. “The tech specs are [so legacy-based] that even Samsung (the anchor supplier to Reliance Jio’s 4G network) is not eligible.” 

On Friday, the news broke news broke The Economic Times In a letter, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade asked the DoT to adhere to the Commerce Ministry's public procurement policy Read more  that the commerce ministry had warned the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) of disciplinary action if the BSNL tender violated the public procurement conditions laid out under the Preference to Make in India Preference to Make in India Public Procurement Order Department of Telecom's 2018 notification lists telecom products and services wherein local suppliers could be given preference in public procurement guidelines.