Posts and telecommunications minister, Mustafa Jabbar, and the secretary of the same ministry, Abu Hena Morshed Zaman, are currently embroiled in a dispute regarding the cancellation of a tender for the appointment of equipment suppliers in a Bangladesh Telecommunication Company Limited (BTCL) project valued at Tk 10.59 billion.
Sources within BTCL have indicated that the minister wishes to call for a retender to engage suppliers for ‘appropriate equipment,’ while the secretary prefers to proceed with the previous tender.
Amidst this disagreement between the minister and the secretary, BTCL’s managing director, Asaduzzaman Chowdhury, has been removed from his position. He had been holding the post of managing director as additional charge.
The tender for equipment supply was initially announced on 14 August 2022, but the project has not been completed yet.
Concerned individuals have alleged that the equipment being purchased does not meet the conditions of the tender, raising fears that the government’s Tk 4.63 billion investment may go to waste.
Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar expressed his concern to Prothom Alo, saying, “I am frustrated by the delay in launching the 5G network. You should ask the secretary about the delay.” The minister also mentioned that he was not informed about the removal of BTCL’s managing director.
Telecommunication secretary Abu Hena Morshed Zaman believes it is not suitable to comment on the minister’s statement. He pointed out that he serves as the chairman of the BTCL board and that decisions are made collectively by the board.
According to information from the Department of Telecommunications, the project to establish a high-speed internet service with 5G-compatible optical fibers (special cables) was initiated in February 2022. This project aims to provide optical fiber connections to districts and upazilas, with a total cost of Tk 10.59 billion. The equipment purchase for the project accounts for Tk 4.63 billion.
Three companies, ZTE Corporation, Huawei Technologies Limited, and Nokia Solutions, submitted quotations for the tender of equipment procurement. All three were evaluated as qualified by a seven-member technical committee. However, it is alleged that none of these companies could meet the conditions specified in the tender. Despite this, the technical committee declared them eligible.
According to documents, the managing director of BTCL, Asaduzzaman Chowdhury, sought an explanation from the evaluation committee regarding why these three companies were considered technically qualified, even though they apparently didn't meet the conditions outlined in the tender document. The explanation provided did not satisfy him.
The tender evaluation committee justified their decision by referencing information found on Nokia's website, even if it was not included in the tender document. However, there is no provision for evaluating bids based on information that is not part of the documents submitted with the tender.
The explanation also revealed that an official outside the evaluation committee had verified the certificate using WhatsApp. However, the law strictly prohibits any tender information from leaving the evaluation committee's purview. The tender documents stipulate the requirement for at least one certificate of experience in supplying equipment with a 400-gigabyte line capacity, and the documents also specify that any certificate not indicating 400GB would not be accepted. Nokia's license, in contrast, is for 100GB/200GB devices. Nevertheless, the evaluation committee declared them technically qualified.
Another concern raised is that, during the evaluation process, the requirement for proving continuity in only four paths to assess the capability of the Automatically Switched Optical Network (ASON) was relaxed instead of testing all the paths. The equipment of the three companies also failed to meet these requirements during the evaluation, as it ceased functioning after completing three paths. Despite this, all the companies were declared technically qualified.
According to the documents, the managing director declined to approve the improper technical evaluation report and, utilising the authority granted by the Public Procurement Act, ordered the reissuance of tenders.
BTCL formally communicated the decision to cancel the tender in writing to the three companies on 1 June. Subsequently, on 19 June, during the annual review meeting of the Department of Telecommunications, it was decided that a fresh tender should be invited.
In the meantime, Huawei sent a letter on 16 May, expressing dissatisfaction with the managing director of BTCL due to the delay in approving the report. They referenced the date when the evaluation report was submitted to the managing director. Responding to this, the managing director, on 27 August, initiated disciplinary action against Huawei as the first step, alleging that they had sought to unlawfully influence decision-making by obtaining confidential information.
Huawei lodged an appeal against this letter with the Review Panel. The Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU) issued orders declaring the penalty letter null and void. They also sent letters to the three companies, confirming their eligibility, and imposed a penalty on the managing director.
In this situation, the commercial proposal for the tender was not opened. As a result, managing director Asaduzzaman was removed from his position on 18 October. This matter even went to court.
Telecommunication secretary Abu Hena Morshed Zaman informed Prothom Alo that Asaduzzaman Chowdhury was relieved of his additional responsibilities as managing director through a collective decision by BTCL's board.
According to documents and individuals involved, the expected lifespan of the telecommunication equipment is 7 to 8 years, as stipulated in the tender. This implies that the equipment's utility extends until 2030.
According to the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the country's bandwidth demand at that time is projected to be 26 terabytes, as approved in the Detailed Project Proposal (DPP). However, the tender proposes equipment with a capacity of 126 terabytes, which is five times more than needed, resulting in wasteful spending. On the other hand, if equipment with the necessary capacity is not procured, the entire investment may be squandered.
Telecommunication minister Mustafa Jabbar expressed his concerns to Prothom Alo, stating, "To the best of my knowledge, outdated equipment from 2015 is being purchased to launch the 5G network. Why are we investing in outdated equipment when we should be advancing in 2023?" He added, "As far as possible, I will not allow the state's funds to go to waste."