BharatNet, a key component of the PM Modi’s ambitious mission ‘Digital India’ started by the UPA Govt in 2011 as NOFN, seems to be biting the dust in his own party ruled state Uttar Pradesh, which has particularly been least interested to use the BharatNet optic fibre broadband network.
BharatNet, the project is said to significantly reduce corruption in delivery of public services electronically, aims to provide high-speed internet connectivity to a massive 6.25 lakh villages encompassing 2.5 lakh village blocks across the country. However, the targets as intended have not been fulfilled so far.
According to Sanjay Singh, chairman of Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a government-controlled special purpose vehicle (SPV) that is implementing the venture, “Though most of the BharatNet project work is expected to be concluded by March this year, there is virtually no eagerness to use this massive broadband network resource by the state of UP.”
He added that only western states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat are keener to leverage the power of BharatNet.
BharatNet – an Overview:
In Oct. 2011, the then government launched an ambitious plan - The National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats to the internet. The project had faced tremendous hurdles till Modi government came to power giving the project a new lease of life by injecting additional funds and renaming it as BharatNet.
The Phase 1 of BharatNet ended on 31 December 2017, though the deadline was March 2017. The government had claimed to complete broadband connectivity in 100,000 panchayats under this pahse.
During 2018 Budget speech, the finance minister Arun Jaitley added `10,000 crore for the second phase of BharatNet which is expected to get completed by December 2018, though its deadline is March 2019.
As per the Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) Annual Report 2016-2017, equipment has been installed in 100,364 gram panchayats; 96,039 gram panchayats are “service ready”; 59,124 are “service open”; and 103,768 panchayats have end-to-end connectivity.
Now as per government’s claims, nearly 50 per cent of the work on the BharatNet project has been over and when fully operational, it will facilitate delivery of e-governance, e-health, e-education, e-banking and other services to citizens across the country.
Govt chides implementing agencies:
On 2 November 2018, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) chided the two implementing agencies-Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) and BSNL for failing to operationalise, maintain and optimise the pan India BharatNet network.
The DoT wrote an angry worded letter to BBNL and BSNL chairmen and MDs- Sanjay Singh and Anupam Shrivastava respectively, in which the telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan said that disciplinary actions would be taken against officials responsible and attributed "lack of professionalism" on the part of these two agencies. She was unhappy with their lack of coordination to work together in sync for the high profile project.
She said: “Despite fortnightly/weekly reviews for the last two years at my level, it is observed that there is an unprofessional shirking of responsibility; along with inability to resolve on-field problems and inter organisational issues between BBNL and BSNL.”
According to letter, "As of October 2018, 1.15 lakh gram panchayats were service-ready. However, extensive field reports have been received regarding non-functioning at 80-90 per cent of the gram panchayats as well as massive under utilisation/non utilisation of Bharat Net infrastructure. Though clear utilisation targets have already been set, the actual utilisation on ground is understood to be less than 10 per cent of the target.”
She said that the report should include State-wise status of all gram panchayats, details of all non-operational gram panchayats, duration and reason of faults as well as corrective action and time taken to repair.
“All non-operational gram panchayats are to be made operational in 48 hours, and disciplinary action would be initiated against officers in case fault rectification is delayed,” she warned.
The telecom secretary added in the letter: "The failure of both CMD, BSNL and CMD, BBNL to resolve the issues impending utilisation of BharatNet and to put in place an effective O&M arrangement is viewed with extreme displeasure. This note is intended to serve as a warning to both the organisations and the officers in charge to ensure that this important project as well as the huge investments being made on the infrastructure with public money is not allowed to go in vain."
The impact of the DoT letter was quick as the BSNL said it would ensure that action is taken against erring officers. However, it was quick to add that its maintenance responsibility pertains to only the optical fibre portion. Both organizations soon started to blame each other and BSNL even wanted its dues of about `617 crore to be recovered from Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL). The organizations, as it usually happens, washed their hands off their responsibilities. BSNL also suggested that states should need to take equal responsibility of ensuring utilisation of the massive rural broadband infrastructure that is being put in place.
Govt goads states to utilise BharatNet infrastructure:
On 21 November 2018, the central government asked states to use the rural BharatNet broadband infrastructure as it may create employment and benefit the masses.
Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan said: "With regard to Bharat Net, we have put in this infrastructure in one lakh gram panchayats but states are not coming forward to utilise it. So, how do we reach across to the states to make sure that they utilise it because that will then create more opportunities for monetisation but, more importantly, that is necessary to ensure services reach the people. The industry and government need to team up on projects aimed at bolstering communications infrastructure in the country.”
She added: "We have the fiberisation project...wifi hotspots...there, there are a number of areas where we need to work together. One of things, I want to flag is that in Bharat Net program...there is a huge opportunity for stakeholders in industry because apart from building the infrastructure, in the last phase we are also rolling out wifi hotspots."
There is a reason behind states’ involvement. In last two years, the government realised that it would be difficult to achieve its target. Therefore, it changed its goal half-way and reduced the number of village panchayats to 100,000 and passed on the burden of the other 150,000 village panchayats to the states.
Govt data itself shows lackluster performance:
As per a leading online news portal, nearly ` 110 billion has been spent so far but the BharatNet has almost failed to fulfill its intended achievements. According to latest internal government data seen by the news portal, less than 2.5 per cent of India’s 250,000 village panchayats have commercial broadband connections.
The report says that govt’s claim of 110,000 village panchayats being covered is not reliable, as only 5,010 village panchayats have actual commercial broadband connections as of October 31, 2018, as per internal DoT data.
The DoT sources told the news platform that only 660 MB of data is being consumed per connection that is provided as a result of BharatNet. Will this data be of any value to access government’s digital health or education programmes? Though the number of village panchayats with test connections is higher - 56,700, These are free connections that are provided for only six months.
K N Gupta, former executive director of the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), rightly said: “Laying fibre and providing test connection has no meaning. It is the number of broadband connections used by the people and services through broadband that matters. If you lay water pipes in villages but water doesn’t flow through them, the dry pipes are of no use to the people. Moreover, they get rusted.”
The digital connectivity expert Osama Manzar also concurred with Gupta: “Cables have been laid but the end task of actually making Internet connectivity available, functional and distributed has been ignored”.
Gupta said: “This has the potential of becoming a big scam as taxpayer money has gone down the drain.”
Survey shows depressing results:
In the beginning of 2018, the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s research team conducted a spot check to assess the status of the government’s ‘service ready’ gram panchayats, which fall under Phase I that is marked “complete”.
It engaged its ground staff across the country to find responses to three questions from 269 “service ready” panchayats across 19 districts in 13 states. Their questionnaire included - Does the panchayat office have NOFN internet connection? Has the BBNL device been installed at the panchayat office? Has BBNL internet connectivity ever worked at any point since its installation?
The survey found that only 50 (18.6%) of the 269 gram panchayats had BBNL device installed and NOFN internet connection up to the Panchayat Bhawan. And only 31 (11.5%) of them had “functional” but slow internet connection. These working connections were in four panchayats in Jharkhand, three in Madhya Pradesh, 17 in Maharashtra, six in Rajasthan and one in West Bengal. In Kalyanpur panchayat in Rajasthan, internet connectivity is limited to panchayat officials for 4-5 hours a day.
The report said that the government has missed countless deadlines and pumped in thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money into the project with little tangible results. “The cables have been laid, the devices have been installed, and laptops have been allotted, but the end task of actually making internet connectivity available, functional and distributed has been ignored,” survey report said.
The way forward:
Providing broadband connectivity in all 250,000 panchayats across the country is never going to be an easy task. If the government wants to force digital payments and digital identification in exchange for entitlements and public services for the most marginalized communities, providing functional internet connectivity and the required tools to access it should be bare minimum requirement.
Involving MSOs/LCOs can change the game:
The cable TV industry has shed its sweat and blood to create a phenomenal cable network across the cities and towns. It has connected more than 150 million households in the country out of which about 80 million are in the rural areas . Cable Operators Federation of India (COFI) President Mrs Roop Sharma say that if a feasible business model is worked out for LCOs (Local Cable TV Operators), they will not only build the last-mile networks, but also market them among the local population as they are well informed about each household in their area.
For example, ACT Fibernet offers one gigabyte per second speed in wired broadband connectivity in cities like Hyderabad. Such high-speed connectivity means the customer can start quality viewing of TV and other rich content thanks to cable broadband. Many MSOs are launching their broadband services, and as the cable is already there at each home, it would not be too tough to achieve the targets.
Some of the recommendations by Cable Operators Federation of India to involve LCOs in this mission to reduce ‘digital divide’ include:-
- MSOs who provide cable broadband generally have the internet service provider (ISP) licence. Hence, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) gazette notification issued on November 18, 2016, on Right of Way (RoW), applies to them automatically. They merely need to leverage this for speedy roll-out of optical fibre in a cost-effective manner.
- For MSOs and local cable operators (LCO), who do not have an ISP licence, suitable gazette notification should be issued by the I&B ministry for enabling RoW under the Cable Act.
- The government should support MSOs and LCOs through the Universal Service Obligation Fund for broadband provisioning in rural areas. Further, financial support through banks/institutions should be facilitated.
- Tax rebate on broadband equipment import should be considered.
- The government should recognise/identify already laid cable infrastructure and support LCOs to provide broadband to panchayats and municipalities, thereby integrating these networks with Bharat Net.
- As was done for mobile electromagnetic fields by DoT, the government should go for nationwide awareness programmes for cable operators to enhance their skills and knowledge for high-quality broadband provision.
- Incentive schemes to cable operators for upgrading services to consumers.