When state-run Nepal Telecommunications Corporation introduced mobile phones in Nepal four years ago, it promised roaming facilities within three months. Customers are still waiting.
Plagued by mismanagement and corruption, NTC officials are unable to provide a convincing answer why. Nepal's cell phone network is one of the most primitive in the world, and it is hard to see why NTC is not interested in providing a service that would be such a lucrative source of revenue. NTC makes Rs 35 million a month from its mobile operations, and is adding 300 new cell connections every day. But it provides only voice mail and domestic texting. There is no call-forwarding, no roaming and no facility to sell SIM cards to visitors.
NTC's director for new services, Madan Kaji Shakya told us: "We are arranging to set up the service. But there are technical and human resource constraints." Nepali customers have heard it all before, and those who can afford it are going for satellite phones like Thuraya which are designed for use in the earth's remotest regions. In tarai towns, Nepalis are buying Indian mobile phones and use them to call Kathmandu because it is cheaper than NTC's monopoly rates.
The crux of the problem seems to be that NTC was forced in 1996 by politicians to go for the Israeli Telerad system that supplied Canadian-made Nortel equipment for the initial 10,000 mobile lines. Telerad had a fatal flaw: it didn't allow roaming.
One NTC engineer admited to us: "They bought it in a hurry and didn't bother to check if it allowed roaming. Big mistake." In the NTC's politicised and unaccountable system, no one ever paid for the gaffe. Only the customers did.
Now, NTC has imported new equipment from the Chinese Hua Wei company which allows limited inbound roaming, which means a customer with a foreign phone can make and take calls if it is through the 24 operators in 14 countries with which NTC has agreements, including India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Britain and Singapore.
NTC customers can't use this system even if the equipment is in place because officials admit it doesn't have the management capacity to operate the billing systems with other operators. Why can't NTC hire more people? One engineer told us the management is non-technical and just doesn't understand the need to upgrade.
At the regulatory Nepal Telecommunication Authority, Shrish Prasad Sen passes the buck back to NTC, saying: "It is the NTC's decision to providing roaming services or not. We haven't asked them for details." Listening to this, it seems the problem is neither technical nor managerial, but indifference.
If NTC can't do it, the private mobile operator Spice Cell Nepal could step in, but it is stuck because of a lingering financial dispute with the government.