Manpower Challenges in Ensuring Seamless Telecom Connectivity in Punjab

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The telecommunications sector functions as the backbone of Indian economy servicing over 1.17 billion subscribers multiple times, every day, across the country. As the world’s second-largest market, the Indian mobile economy contributes substantially to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The rapid growth of the industry can be judged by the fact that according to a research by Randstad India, the telecom industry is going to be responsible for generations of 40 lakh direct and indirect jobs over the next five years.
In the Punjab region alone, with approximately 15,000 mobile tower sites serving 35 million telecom subscribers, over 20,000 people are directly and indirectly employed with the telecom industry. The government has been instrumental in facilitating uninterrupted electricity for smooth functioning of the tower sites and hence providing seamless connectivity in the region. Punjab happens to be one of the states in the country which has very good quality and stable power supply. This continuous support from the government has been a strong pillar in making telecom operations a success.
“Telecom towers are the backbone of the telecommunication services in India and have transformed nation into a socio economic knowledge intensive society. These towers are the bedrock of extending seamless connectivity for voice and data both to the end consumers”, said Mr. Tilak Raj Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA).
While it has a hierarchy of people engaged in taking care of the towers, the person who is the first touch point to the tower is the technician. The technician is an employee of a sub-contractor and is stationed at the mobile tower locations. He is responsible to ensure maintenance and servicing of the towers. A typical technician services about 12-15 towers to ensure that telecom networks are up and running for the people in the region. Any hindrance in maintaining the towers affects the network, causing disruption of services in the region. Hence the site technicians’ role is very crucial in this regard.
While the government has an aspiration of connecting all the villages and providing network through its Digital India initiative, there is a serious bottleneck in execution of this plan in Punjab. The field technician finds it difficult to perform his duties peacefully because of external influences. While most of the technicians want to do a good job honestly, they are held back by some of their own colleagues having vested interests.
Traditionally the telecom tower sector had high dependence on diesel. As the sector evolved, alternative solutions of electricity and batteries were deployed. Unfortunately, the malpractices of diesel pilferage have continued since its inception and hamper the daily operations even today.
He further added, “In Punjab, with the continuity of instances, we have uncovered that some of the technicians are involved in diesel pilferage for the personal benefits. They wilfully damage the telecom and power equipment at sites with the objective of pocketing the diesel, thereby causing damage to the towers including fire, in addition to creating network disruption. We are thankful to the Punjab Police for their continuous support in curbing this practice.”
Also, Mr. Dua said, “Further, aligned with the government’s broader agenda, the industry has been rolling out alternative technologies to develop green sustainable telecommunication and decrease dependence on diesel. Even then, the diesel consumption continues to increase rather than decreasing.”
As they are not unionized, they threaten and influence the fellow technicians to join their mob and put the telecom companies to ransom for demanding extra diesel and cause lot of network outage. Because of their instigation, most of the technicians in Punjab either voluntarily or under coercion are behaving in a manner hostile to telecom networks.
Under the influence of the high diesel pilfering technicians, most of the technicians do not allow to maintain any logbooks or records to keep track of diesel on site. While companies have tried to implement productivity improvement measures using mobile technology, the technicians have refused to adopt these new technologies. They hold the telecom companies to ransom by threatening telecom companies with non-cooperation including not attending to towers that require immediate servicing, not allowing access to the towers and intentional switching off of sites.
The impact of this indiscipline has not only impacted the telecom industry but the overall society. It is estimated that significant amount of diesel consumed in Punjab is pilfered. Where the power situation has substantially improved in the last three years, the reduction in diesel is negligible. The money earned from diesel pilferage is used for antisocial activities. More than 15 FIRs have been lodged for serious offences such as damage to property, disruption of telecom networks, narcotics, drug peddling, threat to life, rape and abduction to commit murder. Some of the technicians have lost their lives under the influence of drugs and alcohol where their families have been seriously impacted. There are reports that money earned from pilferage is going to organized crime. There have been several cases of equipment catching fire because of abuse, causing threat to human life and loss to property. There have also been instances where several towers have been switched off simultaneously in Punjab. In one case more than thousands of towers were switched off, causing severe disruption to telecom services.
Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) which represents Indian telecom tower players like Indus Towers, Bharti Infratel, American Tower Company (ATC), GTL Infrastructure, in association with the local government authorities and police officials has been working tirelessly to ensure maintenance of network operations by:
• Providing adequate power supply to the mobile tower sites
• Administering field discipline amongst miscreant site technicians by reducing diesel pilferage
• Bringing in diesel rationalisation, thus helping in maintaining field control and regulation
• Use of technology like monitoring alarms to monitor grid power use and keep online record of equipment maintenance
• Introducing adequate redressal mechanism to eliminate instigation amongst technicians
• Bringing in process efficiency to reduce equipment abuse
• Supporting local authorities in taking strict action against technicians creating indiscipline
• Providing technical and ethical training to skill field teams in site maintenance and incorporate field discipline
Such initiatives by the industry body, along with support from the government and police authorities will go a long way in ensuring continuity of the communications network in the region. The telecom industry is poised to play a towering role in the Government of India’s Digital India and Smart Cities initiative and it is imperative that malicious intent to hamper services is thwarted.
TAIPA members have approached senior police and civil administration for support in resolution of this issue, and have received assurance that any issue impacting the telecom network will be dealt with appropriately.

Date: 
Thursday, May 18, 2017