The government has failed to use a single penny of Tk 1,257.32 crore or over $150 million furnished by the mobile phone operators to the telecom regulator's social obligation fund in the last six years.
The telecom regulator introduced the fund in November 2011 when four mobile operators renewed their licences, and a committee was formed to use the fund in 2014.
But the committee could not make time and organise any meeting to decide on how to use the fund in the next three years. The first meeting of the committee was held in early 2017 in absence of the telecom minister. But it brought no result.
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) formed the fund to expand the reach of telecom services to the underprivileged population and boost economic growth.
The operators have been contributing 1 percent of their gross revenue to the fund on a quarterly basis from the last quarter of 2011. The amount reached Tk 1,070.47 crore as of September 2017.
The commission kept the money as a bank deposit and so far earned Tk 186.85 crore as interest.
In a recent meeting, the BTRC once again decided to keep the latest quarterly contribution as a bank deposit for six months because of the absence of any initiative from the government to use it.
On Friday, State Minister for Telecom Tarana Halim said they had sent a proposal to the Prime Minister's Office to organise a meeting of the fund utilisation committee.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—who is also the telecom minister and president of the obligation fund using committee—has given her consent to hold the meeting, Tarana said.
“The PMO had sought a briefing on the issue and we have briefed. The meeting will take place once the prime minister gives her schedule.”
Grameenphone, the largest mobile phone operator, contributed the highest Tk 544.84 crore to the fund.
Citycell and Teletalk were not regular in making contributions. The lone state-owned operator Teletalk put in the lowest, Tk 2.70 crore, to the fund. Citycell contributed Tk 6.70 crore before its closure in October last year.
Continuous accumulation of over $150 million is highly dangerous from financial management point of view, LIRNEasia's Senior Policy Fellow Abu Saeed
He said the government should set a target of the amount to be collected and abolish the fund thereafter.
“Otherwise, it will be a perpetual source of ungovernable corruption.”
In 2015, the BTRC included international gateway operators and other service providers in the list of mandatory contributors. However, they are still enjoying the exemptions.
The ICT division applied to the prime minister seeking more than Tk 600 crore from the fund in order to establish a network, but the telecom division opposed the idea.
Mobile operators have also repeatedly requested the government to use the fund and establish a superhighway of fibre optic cable network to help increase data use at a faster speed.
Mobile operators said they have so far covered 99 percent geographical areas with mobile network, but for better data service, especially 4G, fibre optic cable connectivity is a must.
The ICT division and state-run National Telecom Monitoring Cell also sought allocations from the fund; but their proposals failed to get positive response because of the opposition from the telecom division.
The posts, telecom and ICT ministry comprises of two divisions: Tarana leads the posts and telecom division while Zunaid Ahmed Palak takes care of the ICT division.