Consumers bear brunt of fight between internet companies, power utilityTo punish internet providers, Electricity Authority cut wires and cables after a longstanding dispute over rental fee in a move that curtails people’s basic rights, activists say
As the Nepal Electricity Authority started cutting the internet and cable television wires from its electricity poles on Saturday, Sugat Ratna Kansakar, the former chief of Nepal Telecom, was quick to react.
“...on any pretext, especially when there is an issue over transactions between two organisations, consumer services should not be closed,” Kansakar wrote on Twitter. “It’s a universal law because the internet has become an essential service worldwide.”
The state-owned power utility, in a dispute over unpaid fees by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), on Saturday snapped the internet and cable wires in nearly a dozen places across the country. The Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA)’s argument is: the ISPs have been using the electricity poles but failed to pay the rental charge.
The NEA had warned the service providers to “face the consequences” from Saturday if they failed to pay the rental fee for using its poles. The service providers did not pay heed to the warning.
Consumers were the ultimate sufferers.
Whether Nepal’s ISPs have been up to the mark when it comes to providing service to the consumers has always been questionable, but a state agency troubling consumers because of its failure to make the entities fall in line has raised some new debates.
Consumers and consumer rights activists argue that the NEA has completely failed in its duty by punishing the citizens for committing no crime.
Consumer rights activists said that neither the government nor any other organisation has the right to deprive consumers of services, even for a minute, and when services that are listed as “essential” are affected, it amounts to a crime.
Using the right under the Essential Services Operation Act, 1957, the government on May 28 listed the internet as an essential service. As per the law, essential services should not be halted or banned in any way and if anyone does that, the law has provision to punish.
“Interrupting the essential service is a crime,” said Bishnu Prasad Timilsina, general secretary of the Forum for Consumers’ Rights, Nepal. “The electricity authority's inability to collect payments from ISPs on time and ISPs not paying their rental fees on time should not lead to trouble for consumers.”
According to him, the electricity authority should have taken action one by one against the defaulter internet and cable service providers.
“Cutting the wires to punish service providers and causing sufferings to consumers are not only a lack of efficiency on the part of government agencies but also a crime,” said Timilsina.
Most of Nepal’s ISPs have been using the electricity authority’s poles to carry their cables to the subscribers. For using the NEA’s poles, the ISPs pay rental charges.
Publishing a notice on September 14, the NEA had warned internet, telephone and cable television companies using its utility poles to clear the outstanding rental fees or their wires would be removed from October 1.
The state-owned power utility said that some internet service providers, phone companies and cable TV operators had been using its infrastructure without permission while others had not submitted documents providing details of the global positioning system coordinates, map and distance.
The authority had said that it would remove the optical fibres and other equipment installed without agreement by service providers and to avoid this they should make the payments.
No one, however, paid heed.
Then suddenly the NEA swung into action on Saturday.
The Federation of Computer Associations Nepal, on Sunday, reacted, condemning the power utility’s act.
The federation said that the internet wires have been cut in Bharatpur, Butwal, Kathmandu, Biratnagar, Dharan, Dhankuta, Taplejung, Khadichaur and Dhangadhi.
The ISPs have been saying that the price of broadband internet will rise by Rs150 in urban areas and up to Rs300 in rural areas if they abide by the new rental fee of the authority.
According to the ISPs, the power utility had been charging Rs205 per pole until 2018-19 and then revised the tariff on a per km and per pole basis. With the revision, the rental fee has been hiked to Rs750 monthly, which is more than 20 times the original rate, it said.
“We have not said that we will not make the payment,” said Sudhir Parajuli, president of Internet Service Providers’ Association Nepal. “If we have to pay the hiked pole fare, the burden of the increased price will be passed on to the customer.”
The ISPs have sought permission to increase the price of the internet with the Nepal Telecommunications Authority.
But the telecommunication authority has said that the internet price should not be increased and they are holding discussions with the government to resolve the issue, said Parajuli. “We have been waiting for the government's word.”
“So we are not the culprit,” Parajuli told the Post.
As of mid-July this year, there are 31.08 million internet subscribers using fixed broadband wireless and mobile internet, as per the report of the Nepal Telecommunications Authority.
The telecommunications authority issued a statement on Saturday expressing a deep concern about the move of the electricity authority.
Under the Telecommunication Act, 1997, if anyone tries to interrupt the service, they will be liable to punishment.
Manoj Silwal, deputy managing director at the Nepal Electricity Authority, told the Post that Saturday's move was just “symbolic” to make service providers liable for the consequences of not paying the rental fee.
“Our intention is not to create problems for the customers. We have selected some small areas so that it may not affect many customers,” Silwal told the Post. “We did not cut the wires today [Sunday]. We are not going to take this action for another few days as we believe the issue will be resolved soon.”
According to Silwal, the electricity authority was forced to take the drastic step because service providers did not respond to the authority’s calls to adjust rental fees even though they were given a year or so.
The power utility issued a statement on Sunday saying that it had implemented the new rent fee in mid-June, 2018 which came into effect on August 17, 2020.
The power utility defended that it was not an overnight decision to cut wires.
As per the new rent fee structure, the service providers should pay Rs14,000 [excluding tax] per kilometre for using 33 and 11 kV poles, annually.
To install optical fibre on an electricity distribution line of 33 or 11 kV or lower, the service providers should pay Rs9,000 and Rs7,000 per km annually in metropolitan cities and municipality/rural municipalities, respectively.
“Some service providers have been using our infrastructure without paying the rent fee for the last five years and have also been including these charges on the customer bill,” according to the power utility.
Santosh Paudel, director at Nepal Telecommunications Authority, said his office has requested the line ministry to resolve the dispute.
“The electricity authority did not come for discussion to find an amicable solution to the problem,” Paudel said. “We could have already given permission to hike the price for service providers but this is not an appropriate time,” he said.
Last week, Kulman Ghising, managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority, said that the city's beauty had been marred by mismanaged wires. If service providers use 96 core fibre optic cable wires which is a system to allow common sharing, it will be cheaper for them and help bring down internet costs, he said.
Each internet service provider has been stringing its own wires on every pole and there is no sharing. According to him, 95 percent of the cable wires on the poles were not usable. Many old poles are about to fall due to the weight of the tangled wires.
“To avoid this kind of mess, new cable wires can be connected and shared by everyone, and the cost will also drop,” he said.
Officials said that making the internet expensive is against the government’s initiative of Digital Nepal, a framework which was prepared in 2018 to make the internet reachable, accessible and affordable to all people.
Consumer rights activists say consumers are suffering because no stakeholders are serious about this issue. While ISPs are not paying the rental fee, the Nepal Telecommunications Authority does not want to increase the internet cost and the power utility is failing to bring the concerned party to the negotiating table, according to the activists.
“The internet service providers should be aware of their responsibilities and make rent payments on time as they have been charging customers,” said Timilsina. “The ISPs are equally responsible. They cannot defy the notice.”
According to him, customers are being taken for a ride.
“Nobody is thinking about customers' rights,” said Timilsina. “Their services are being interrupted in the tug-of-war between the two state-run utilities.”