The massive BharatNet project has three phases:
Phase I: The first phase included connecting over 1 lakh gram panchayats across India through BSNL, RAILTEL and PGCIL. Around 32,000 km of Optical Fibre (OF) cable of BSNL is being replaced by new OF cable. High-speed broadband service is provided to 2.5 lakh villages benefitting 20 crore rural Indians. The first phase was said to be over by December 31, 2017. However, only 5,010 village panchayats have actual commercial broadband connections as of October 31, 2018, according to internal DoT data.
Phase II: In second phase, additional 1.5 lakh gram panchayats were said to connected. The target date fixed for completion of this phase was March 31, 2019. Till March 17, 2019, 125,196 gram panchayats were laid with OF cables and 117,552 gram panchayats were laid with OFC with the installation of equipment. Also, 564 gram panchayats were commissioned on satellite.
Phase III: The third phase started in 2019 and is expected to get completed by 2023. It will include setting up fibre networks between districts and blocks.
The BharatNet project, when fully operational, will facilitate delivery of e-governance, e-health, e-education, e-banking and other services to citizens across the country. As per government’s claims, BharatNet is said to significantly boost the Digital India mission and 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.
There are two implementing agencies-Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) and BSNL which are responsible for operationalising, maintaining and optimising the pan India BharatNet network. Also, the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) has given orders to listed companies for the implementation of this project which includes Himachal Futuristic Communications, Sterlite Technologies, Vindhya Telelinks, Finolex Cables and Aksh Optifibre, in Fy19.
At present, BharatNet is being used by BSNL, CSC SPV, TSPs and ISPs for delivery of services at Gram Panchayats. BSNL has provisioned WiFi hotspots at 1,742 GPs and FTTH connections at 13,513 GPs in various states. Also, BBNL has provided for provisioning of an FTTH connection by BSNL at every GP of Phase I, for a period of one year, to provide broadband services to the people at the GP level. Such connections have already been provided to 70,238 GPs, as per latest reports.
In November 2018, the central government had also 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."
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.
Ground reality is not encouraging
According to media reports PMO had criticised the progress of BharatNet and consequently strictures were sent by Telecom Secy. Ms Aruna Sundararajan to heads of BBNL and BSNL. In one of her memos the had noted that out of 1 lakh gram panchayats that are defined as “service open”, whopping 50% than had non functioning networks or faulty equipment that would prevent them from providing connectivity. One of the major hurdle in the programme is maintenance of the network and the other being that private players do not trust the quality of the network, so no takers for providing the last mile services.
Let’s involve MSOs/LCOs:
We all know that 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.
As per experts, 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. 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 have launched their broadband services, and as the cable is already there at each home, it would not be too tough to achieve the targets.
MSOs that 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.
TRAI Report on wired broadband:
As per latest telecom subscription report the telecom regulator TRAI, the wired broadband growth is bigger till 31 Dec 2018. TRAI has received data from 308 operators in the month of December 2018 as compared to 306 operators in previous month. The number of broadband subscribers increased from 511.90 million at the end of Nov-18 to 518.55 million at the end of Dec-18with a monthly growth rate of 1.30%.
MTNL’s user base remained stagnant in Nov & Dec 2018.
The Cable TV segment is the largest of the TV service sector with an estimated subscriber base of around 98.5 million subscribers, as per annual report by TRAI released in Feb 2019.
Top five service providers constituted 98.57% market share of the total broadband subscribers at the end of Dec-18. These service providers were Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd (280.12million), Vodafone Idea (107.92million), Bharti Airtel (100.26million), BSNL (20.55million) and Tata Tele. Group (2.26million).
As on 31stDecember, 2018, the top five Wired Broadband Service providers were BSNL (9.17million), Bharti Airtel (2.27million), Atria Convergence Technologies (1.39million), MTNL (0.78 million) and Hathway Cable & Datacom (0.78 million).
Hathway Cable and Datacom may overtake MTNL to become the fourth largest broadband player in the market. As per report, MTNL and Hathway have tied with 0.78 million wired broadband customers each.
As per previous reports, the state owned operator MTNL is losing susbcribers at regular interval. The private broadband players like Hathway have been increasing their subscriber base through aggressive expansion strategy.
In Sep 2017, Hathway had entered the top 5 wired broadband players list for the first time when it displaced Vodafone-owned You Broadband.
In Feb 2019, the department of telecommunications (DoT) said it is planning to monetize fibre assets built under BharatNet through outright sale to private players or by leasing these assets for a 20-year period after a bidding process. The DoT has decided to take this step due to poor utilization of digital infrastructure.
The telecom commission also gave an in-principle approval to hand over these assets to private players. DoT will now work on the modalities of execution of this proposal and submit a report to the commission.
As per a senior DoT Offocial, “We have not been able to ensure effective utilization of these assets. The commission decided that DoT must pursue this in all seriousness, as this is a costly asset that has been created. The DoT should also look at outright sale of the fibre as well as different models of leasing."
Also, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had also urged the government to sell off these fibre assets to private players. The regulator’s recommendations to auction BharatNet infrastructure on an ‘as is where is’ basis came after a meeting held in December at the prime minister’s office to take stock of the mission.
As per leading telecom experts, private players would have the appetite to invest in fibre assets, but very few have the finances to buy these assets. Vodafone Idea Ltd has announced that it would monetize its fibre assets, but incurred a loss of ` 5,004 crore in the December quarter. Its rival Bharti Airtel too plans to roll out high-speed internet through fibre, but only in the top 100 cities.
Only Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd has announced ambitious plans to connect 1,110 cities through fibre. Reliance Jio also proposes to transfer its own fibre and tower businesses to separate companies and enter into arrangements for long-term use of these assets.