Over the past few months, a flurry of meetings have taken place between executives of state-owned telecom operator BSNL and a consortium led by the Tata Group. Officials from the Department of Telecom (DoT) have also been in attendance, relaying the goings on to India’s telecom minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw.
The minutes of these meetings, which The Ken has accessed, reveal a plan that is both bold and pathbreaking. The Indian government, in line with its aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) mantra, is attempting to orchestrate the creation of the first telecom network built entirely by Indian companies. If all goes to plan, the Tata-led consortium will secure a purchase order worth between $1.5-2 billion to build BSNL’s long overdue 4G network. The consortium includes the country’s largest systems integrator, Tata Consultancy Services, and domestic telecoms manufacturer Tejas Networks, which is also part-owned by Tata.
It’s a gargantuan task, and one that even the Tata Group, which boasts a global presence across industries as varied as automobiles, IT, and steel will find difficult to execute. As of a year ago, neither TCS nor Tejas had the full stack of 4G network technology—the hardware components such as radios that are mounted on telecom towers and the core software that serves as the brain of the network—required by BSNL.
Thus far, TCS has only provided development and testing services to global telecom vendors. Tejas, meanwhile, which clocked revenues of Rs 515 crore (~$69 million) in the year ended March 2021, primarily builds equipment that connects radios deployed at cell towers with the network core. It earns its bread and butter from wireline products such as optical networks. However, Tejas doesn’t build radios. Both companies are currently working feverishly to showcase a proof of concept (PoC), but progress has not been as rapid as either BSNL or the government had hoped.
“Earlier, a more aggressive timeline was pursued—completion of proof of concept by 26 January, and completing the rollout of 4G in a few circles by 15 August,” an official close to DoT and BSNL said.
The Ken has learnt that a revised deadline of 31 January to showcase PoC has also been missed, with TCS officials requesting an extension in a meeting on 28 January, sources told The Ken. Sources also allege that the consortium has been hesitant to share its test results with BSNL and DoT, and has not met all the requirements of the former. Questions sent to BSNL, DoT, and Tata Group went unanswered.
BSNL is unhappy with the delays. It understands that it is running against time and must set up a 4G network swiftly to keep its 113 million subscribers (as of September 2021) from switching to private rivals Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel.