The National Broadband Policy has envisioned to expand broadband service nationwide by 2020. The telecom sector regulator — Nepal Telecommunications Authority — has initiated different projects to achieve the target. Moreover, NTA will also be implementing new guidelines to regulate the quality of service in Nepal’s telecommunication industry from July 16. In this context Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times spoke to NTA Chairman Digambar Jha to discuss telecommunication issues of the country. Excerpts:
What do you have to say on the current state of the telecommunication sector of the country?
The telecommunication sector of the country was running on a ‘back gear’ for the last one decade. Nepal was the first country to introduce 3G service in the entire South Asian region and was also a pioneer in introducing WiMAX service. However, after these services were introduced, the telecommunication industry could not move ahead as expected for a number of years. This is probably because the post of chairman at NTA remained vacant for almost three years. Though telecommunication is a sector where the latest technologies have to be introduced every year to deliver efficient telecom services, Nepal’s telecommunication sector remained at a standstill for a long time due to lack of leadership in NTA. I joined NTA two years back with an aim to give momentum to the telecommunication industry. The first step I took was to reform policies and introduce new policies as it is government policies that regulate the telecommunication sector. I also took the initiative to introduce the Broadband Policy 2015 and ICT Policy 2015. Due to lack of these policies, Nepal was lagging behind in the telecommunication sector. These policies were intended to promote data service in the telecommunication industry of Nepal as voice service is getting outdated. As development today relies heavily on the ICT sector, the Broadband Policy was introduced to increase people’s access to internet across the country. NTA today is working to implement these two policies. We are laying optical fibre along the Mid-Hill Highway and other places to take internet network to every district headquarter, municipality and village development committee. We have a target to take internet services to every VDC of the country by 2020. In fact, NTA today is working to develop information highway across the country.
NTA has been charged of awarding different projects to telecom companies, especially Nepal Telecom, without proper bidding process. How true is this?
We awarded the project to lay optical fibre along the Mid-Hill Highway directly to Nepal Telecom (NT) as we analysed that NT has the required expertise and ability to complete this project. Similarly, Nepal Telecom has 98 per cent share of the government and NTA was directed by the government to give this project to NT. As we have a legal provision to award projects to Nepal Telecom following the direction of the government, we awarded this project to NT. However, in the agreement with Nepal Telecom, we have clearly mentioned that NT should call a tender for any work within this project and it has been doing so for different works. Had NTA awarded the project to private telecom companies, they would directly import machinery required for the project through quotation, which is a comparatively less accountable process.
Recently, NTA also awarded a contract to United Telecom Ltd to lay optical fibre in Provinces 4 and 5 though the company has comparatively few resources and low presence in domestic telecom sector. How justifiable was this decision?
Nepal today has six telecom companies of which four companies — Nepal Telecom, Ncell, Smart Telecom and United Telecom Ltd (UTL) — have the licence to deliver voice service across the country. The other two telecom companies — CG Telecom and Hello Nepal — today have negligible presence in the country and have not acquired the Unified Licence from the government. These two companies did not take part in the proposal that NTA had announced for this project. Moreover, these two telecom firms are yet to clear some dues to the government. However, we have a legal provision that the process of laying optical fibre and other projects under the Rural Telecommunication Development Fund (RTDF) has to be done through existing telecom service providers. Now we have four telecom companies eligible for the project. Nepal Telecom, being a government operator, hesitates to take part in tender processes. Moreover, NT has already obtained a big project from NTA to lay optical fibre along the Mid-Hill Highway. Out of the remaining three, Smart Telecom and UTL are still in a loss. If these factors are to be considered, Ncell would have got the project directly. However, Ncell is facing various tax issues at present and is in a controversy. In such a context, NTA was obliged to give the project to either UTL or Smart Telecom. UTL was the lowest bidder for the project with a proposal to implement the optical fibre laying project at Rs two billion. Thus, we awarded the project to UTL. However, in case UTL is unable to implement the project as per schedule, NTA will re-award the project to some other service provider.
NTA is implementing the Quality Guidelines in the domestic telecommunication industry for the first time from July 16. What are the objectives behind it?
We have already developed the draft of the Quality Guidelines. Till date, we had been checking quality of services delivered by operators through a manual system. We did not have digital system to check quality. However, last year NTA bought frequency analyser and drive machines to check the quality of service in the country’s telecom industry. We have also purchased equipment to check the electro-magnetic radiation in the country. Thus, NTA now is all set to regulate the quality of telecom operators. Once the guideline comes into effect, telecom operators will have to compensate customers for low quality service. They will have to compensate customers for call drop and any network failure due to congestion. We have also reduced mobile pulse rate ensuring that customers are charged as per the actual time of the calls they make. We have reduced the mobile pulse duration from 30 seconds to 10 seconds. We will soon reduce the pulse duration to one second. Earlier, bad quality had been an incentive for operators, as customers had to repeatedly make calls due to problems like congestion and network failure. With the implementation of new pulse rate, telecom operators cannot take benefit of their poor quality.
Have telecom operators implemented the new mobile pulse duration?
We brought down the mobile pulse duration from April 14. However, NTA gave one more week to telecom companies to implement the new pulse rate as it requires software upgradation and installation of new technology. NTA, in April-end, monitored telecom companies — especially Nepal Telecom and Ncell — and both these firms were adhering to the new pulse duration provision.
A huge chunk of frequency that NTA has given to telecom companies is still unused. What is NTA doing to ensure telecom companies make maximum use of frequencies they have been allotted?
We have given very less volume of frequencies to telecom companies in Nepal compared to the international standard. However, it is also a fact that telecom companies have not used all frequencies that they have acquired. As use of frequencies increases along with the increase in service of telecom companies, we have been allowing telecom companies to introduce multiple technologies and services under the same frequency, which is called technology neutral in technical sense.
Domestic telecom firms have been violating the principle of ‘net neutrality’ due to lack of a legal framework to guide it. Does NTA plan to introduce any regulatory framework to curb violation of net neutrality in the future?
Yes, we do. By promoting single content, site and application, telecom companies are certainly violating the concept of net neutrality in Nepal. In fact, NTA has now started discussions over introducing regulatory framework on net neutrality. NTA will soon hold a meeting with experts from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to discuss the issues related to net neutrality and regulatory frameworks.
A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.