Notwithstanding the red flags raised earlier in the implementation model of the Centre’s flagship BharatNet project to connect 2.5 lakh gram panchayats with the optic fibre network, a parliamentary standing committee on information technology has expressed “displeasure over lack of attention” of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) towards funding the scheme.
“Considering the fact that NOFN (national optic fibre network) Project is one of the critical pillars in the context of the Digital India mission of the government, it need not be overemphasised that the Department (DoT) cannot afford any delay in implementation of the NOFN Project for want of funds,” the committee chaired by MP Anurag Singh Thakur said in its report.
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According to the report, against a proposed sum of Rs 7,350 crore, a sum of only Rs 2,755 crore was allocated for Universal Service Obligatory Fund (USOF) for 2016-17. The DoT has noted that an additional Rs 6,462 crore would be required for the project.
“Since adequate amount of fund is already available under Universal Access Levy (UAL) and one of the stated objectives of this fund is to make available funds for USOF schemes, the department should have taken proactive initiatives for allocation of sufficient funds from UAL to USOF schemes,” the report added.
Considering the inadequacy of the market mechanism to serve rural and inaccessible areas with telecom connectivity, the government had set up the USOF to fund the schemes such as BharatNet and setting up of network infrastructure in left-wing extremism affected areas. The USOF is funded from two streams – via budgetary allocation, and via UAL, which is a percentage of the revenue earned by the telecom operators under various licenses.
The committee said that as of February 2016, the UAL had a balance of Rs 42,932.84 crore, and in its original report had recommended transfer of a part of this fund to the USOF. “The action taken reply of the department is, however, completely silent on the recommendation of the committee to pursue transfer of part of the Universal Access Levy Fund to USOF so as to make available the much needed funds for NOFN,” it said.
As of December 18, less than 25 per cent of the 66,243 gram panchayats linked with optic fibre network, had active internet connectivity. A senior official involved with the implementation process had told The Indian Express that with the current model of BharatNet, while the government may be able to have infrastructure laid as per its target, it may not be able to provide active connectivity in these hinterland areas.
“Needless to say the efforts made by the department are grossly inadequate and certainly not in consonance with the larger objective of affecting a real change in telecom sector by making available UAL funds for USOF schemes,” the parliamentary committee said.
A survey conducted by think-tank LIRNEasia and IIT-Delhi suggested that the use of BharatNet was in single-digits across areas surveyed. “Institutional users are pertinent as they would take the broadband from the gram panchayats to the individual consumers and households. The survey reveals that only one third of them use internet and nearly 70 per cent of non-users do not have any intention to use internet in near future. The use of BharatNet is in single-digit which is a challenge as well as an opportunity for BBNL (Bharat Broadband Network Ltd) and the government as more institutional users are required to experience the benefits of internet for demonstration effects,” said P Vigneswara Ilavarasan of IIT Delhi, who led the survey.