Sunday, June 23, 2024

Operators of PSTN fight uneven battle

The absence of competitive tariffs and licences for multiple revenue schemes hinders the level-playing field of the privately owned public switched telephone network (PSTN)-commonly known as fixed land phone operators, who have already become pawn in the country’s telecom chess-board. The telecom ministry and the Bangladesh Telecommuni-cation Regulatory Commission (BTRC) have recently amended rules to return licences to five PSTN operators. They have been out of service for the last 16 months due to their alleged handling of call termination with the help of illegal voice over internet protocol (VoIP).
The banned PSTN operators have got back their licences and frequencies on condition that they bilaterally solve their payment disputes on interconnectivity charges with the mobile operators.
The interconnection tariff rate between the mobile operators and the PSTN operators has long been a bone of contention in the telecom industry as, insiders say, the mobile companies are reluctant to share revenues rationally with the PSTN operators.
The PSTN operators had to pay Tk 0.40 a minute to the mobile operators and the same amount was charged when a mobile operator’s calls entered the PSTN network, which could be termed “irrational” considering the volume of calls exchanged between the two.
Despite the anomaly, the telecom ministry and the telecom regulator refused to tweak the rates in favour of PSTN operators. Naturally, there looms a big question mark over the feasibility of a suitable market setting for PSTN operators now that they have been re-issued licences and frequencies.
RanksTel was the first among the five banned operators (the others are Dhaka Phone, National Phone, PeoplesTel and WorldTel) which won back approval from the telecom regulator on July 15 this year to resume operation after a 16-month shutdown.
With 250 Base Transceivers System (BTS) in 35 districts, RanksTel, before the ban, had almost three lakh subscribers and 450 employees. Currently the company has no subscribers, but about 150 employees still on its payrolls.
RanksTel chief operating officer (COO) Abul Kalam Shamsuddin said they were happy that the authorities concerned had started re-issuing their licences.
But the government still retains the same tariff rate for a PSTN and a mobile operator which is minimum 65 paisa for an off-net call (from one operator to another) and 25 paisa for an on-net call (between the same operator), he said.
“With that rate, it’s really hard for us to get a market as people would barely consider fixed telephony as an option if the call rate is same as that for a mobile operator,” Shamsuddin said adding, the regulator should have allowed them to have a lower tariff rate.
“We know our market limitations. If the mobile operator is competing for a market of one crore subscribers, we are fighting for a 10-lakh subscriber base. The regulator must help us with something extra such as a lower tariff rate, otherwise we won’t have a market at all,” he said.
“We were closed for the last 16 months and our three lakh subscribers switched to other operators. We are currently re-adjusting the operational procedure of our main switching centre (MSC) and base transceiver system (BTS), he said adding, it would need a few more months to get back into business again.
Shamsuddin said that RanksTel had refunded Tk 1.82 crore to the regulator in shared revenue and annual spectrum and utilisation charges. But unpaid interconnection charges with the mobile operators will be refunded after the company resumes operation, he added.
He observed that it’s time that the government issued PSTN operators licences for multiple services including data, video and voice, known as “triple plan” across the world.
“Many countries across the world, including the neighbouring India, has issued the “triple plan’ licence to PSTN operators, but here we are only given licence for voice service,” he pointed out.
The RanksTel COO said PSTN operators should also have licence for multiple revenue schemes including international gateway (IGW) and interstate carriers express (ICX) to stay afloat.
He also favoured consolidation of the “fixed” telecom industry through merger and acquisition. “The industry is highly fragmented now with too many operators crowding the space. Now is the best time to reshape it and help create an optimum number of financially viable private telecom operators providing “fixed” services similar to the state-owned operator, BTCL”, he said.
Meanwhile, an official of another private PSTN operator, on condition of anonymity, told The Independent that PSTN companies found it hard to penetrate the market since the regulator was reluctant to take steps against mobile companies using public call offices (PCOs).
The use of PCO (a telephone facility located in a public place) by mobile operators goes against their licensing terms and conditions, but they have so far set up around one million PCOs and BTRC seems unconcerned about the matter, the official said adding, only PSTN operators are allowed to run PCO business.
BTRC managing director Rezaul Quader told The Independent that the PSTN operators would now have to abide by three conditions: withdrawing cases against the government, repaying the government its share of the PSTN revenues and paying a fine of Tk 3 lakh to the BTRC.
“We are giving back the PSTN operators their licences and frequencies to keep the country’s telecom sector in the fast lane, but we won’t intervene in the interconnection tariff tiff between the PSTN and mobile operators as we consider it a bilateral issue to be settled between them,” Quader said.
A. Rauf Chowdhury, president of Association of PSTN Operators (APO) meanwhile said he was happy with the government move to return licences to the PSTN operators.
“From APO we are sitting with the ministry and regulator to fix the issues that hamper our level playing field. But it’s too early to make comment on that. So far, we are glad that we have entered the market again”, he said.

-With The Independent input

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