‘Infrastructure sharing concept will bring down price of telecom services’

The government recently appointed Purushottam Khanal as the acting chairman of Nepal Telecommunications Authority. Khanal’s appointment has come at a time when NTA has been charged of not functioning properly as a regulator and doing less to expedite ongoing telecommunication related projects across the country. Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times spoke to Khanal to know about his future plans for the country’s telecommunication industry. Excerpts:

How do you feel about being appointed as an acting chairman of the country’s telecom regulator?

I feel very happy but I have yet to fully utilise my authority as the acting chairman of NTA because the government has not delegated the full responsibility to me. I am at present looking into the day-to-day administrative works and managing the financials of the authority. There are many decisions that have been pending since long as the NTA board meeting has not been held for quite some time. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has informed me that they are getting the necessary paperwork ready to appoint me as the chairman of NTA. In the meantime, I have been involved in various projects and the inspection of telecom companies that fall under my current jurisdiction. The chairman’s job is a challenging one but I am prepared to take on the challenges as opportunities.

The telecommunication companies have yet to pay frequency fees and royalty of around Rs 4 billion. How do you plan to collect the dues?

The NTA has communicated in writing with the concerned telecommunication companies several times regarding the dues that they still have to pay. However, they seem to be ignoring our directives. I would like to urge them to settle their payments as early as possible and if they are facing any problems then NTA is willing to look into those issues and facilitate them. At present I do not have the authority to do much on this front but once I have been appointed as chairman and we hold our board meeting then I will take the necessary legal action against those who still are not willing to pay their dues. The NTA board has the right to revoke their licence if the telecommunication firms do not pay their dues.

NTA has not been able to properly mobilise resources collected in the Rural Telecommunications Development Fund. Some firms have already received contracts under the RTDF but nothing much has happened till date. How do you plan to accelerate such projects?

At present, we have collected funds worth Rs 21 billion in the RTDF. The main objective of setting up RTDF was to utilise the collected funds to prepare strong infrastructure for the country’s telecommunication sector. As per regulation, all telecom firms have to deposit two per cent of their annual income every year to this fund. We use the amount deposited in the fund for the development, extension and operation of telecommunication services in rural areas where it is not commercially viable for private firms. We have already awarded the tender to various telecom firms to connect all districts through optical fibre network along the Mid-Hill Highway. We have also launched the ‘connect a school, connect a community’ programme so as to make information communication technology accessible in rural and remote areas. In fact, we have also awarded the tender for the construction of a tower based on the concept of sharing infrastructure. At present Nepal Telecom, United Telecom Ltd and Smart Cell aredoing their work but progress has been rather slow. The firms had been asking us to facilitate them to lay optical fibre cables along the roads. Recently, we signed a pact with the Department of Roads for the purpose and we expect works related to RTDF to move ahead smoothly now. We also plan to start RTDF funded projects in a few areas in the eastern part of the country within the next two months. Likewise, the broadband projects in the earthquake affected districts are almost over and we are going to hire a consultant to check the quality of the work. The government has assigned NTA to build physical infrastructure and assure internet access across the country. However, the main concern is how other concerned government and private stakeholders utilise the facilities we build. For example, there is a concept of e-health care system and e-study system but it is the duty of related government and private health and education related agencies to develop the content for those services.

There have been complaints against telecom operators of not providing reliable service and charging more from subscribers. What is your take on this?

We are regularly monitoring the issues you have mentioned and have directed the operators to provide reliable services. Earlier, we had found that operators were neglecting the genuine concerns related to network and service and we asked them to improve the quality of their service. If these issues resurface we will take action against them as per law. Recently, we reviewed the Telecommunication Act and added more stringent penalties for those not following our directives. We have forwarded the amended draft of the act to our line ministry. It is not that we will only penalise companies. We will provide our support if there are genuine issues that have been hampering the telecom firms from providing better services. Like you mentioned the price of telecommunication services including internet is expensive in Nepal compared to our neighbouring countries. One main reason for that is we do not have infrastructure sharing provision. So every firm has to build their own infrastructure which is expensive and this cost is passed down to customers. If we are able to fully implement infrastructure sharing concept then price of telecom services will drop.

The government launched the concept of ‘Digital Nepal’ through current fiscal year’s budget. What is the progress on that front?

The government has recently prepared draft of a broad roadmap of Digital Nepal Framework. The duty of NTA is to build infrastructure required for that vision. The government also has a plan to attain developing nation status by 2020 and graduate to a middle income country by 2030 with the theme ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’. The ‘Digital Nepal’ vision can go a long way in achieving these targets as no country can progress without development of its information and communication technology sector. NTA is ready to facilitate the government with needed infrastructure for the digital transformation of the country. However, we also need to raise awareness among people about benefits of a digital world so that all citizens start using digital services where possible. The Digital Nepal Framework focuses on agriculture, healthcare, education, energy, tourism, finance, urban infrastructure and connectivity. In this regard, NTA will soon award the licence to an infrastructure sharing company to provide overall physical service to the telecom service providers. After establishment of the infrastructure sharing company, service providers will not have to worry about construction and maintenance of infrastructure and can focus fully on providing quality service. Meanwhile, NTA will soon finalise the process and legal documentation to launch the country’s own satellite. These issues are still under discussion at the NTA board and once they have been finalised, we will notify the government about our plans. If things go ahead as planned Nepal will have its own satellite in the next four years.