To further promote the Centre’s BharatNet project for providing broadband services in 2.5 lakh gram panchayats of the country, the finance ministry has proposed an allocation of Rs 8,175 crore, which will be used towards completing the second phase of the programme under which 1.5 lakh gram panchayats will be covered. In total, the Budget has allotted Rs 14,500 crore for 2018-19 to augment telecom infrastructure projects, which includes Rs 4,500 crore for an alternate communication network for defence services.
The BharatNet project aims to connect 2.5 lakh gram panchayats by March 2019. “The task of connecting 1 lakh gram panchayats with high speed optic fibre network has been completed under Phase-I of Bharat Net Program. This has enabled broadband access to cover…rural Indians in about 2.5 lakh villages.
The government also proposed to set up 5 lakh wifi hotspots which will provide broadband access to 5 crore rural citizens,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said during the Budget speech.
In its first phase, the BharatNet project saw over one lakh gram panchayats being connected across the country with high speed optical fibre network as of December 31, 2017. Under the first phase, the project saw 2,54,895 km of optical fibre cable being laid covering 1,09,926 gram panchayats out of which 1,01,370 gram panchayats have been provided active connectivity.
In addition, the Centre has “underlined the need to complete the second phase of the BharatNet well before the target of March 2019”.
The Rs 10,000-crore outlay includes Rs 524 crore for setting up additional 156 towers in naxal-affected area and upgradation of bandwidth at 302 VSAT sites from existing 512 Kbps to 1 Mbps. The finance ministry allocation of Rs 450 crore for 25,000 WiFi hotspots in rural areas, Rs 443.29 crore for providing optical fibre cable based connectivity in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep Islands and Rs 400 crore to provide 2,817 mobile towers in 4,119 identified uncovered villages of the North East region.
Jaitley also announced that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will set up a test bed for 5th generation mobile telephony technology anchored by Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. As per budget document, the FM has proposed to allocate Rs 134.48 crore for setting up of the test bed. The Indian Express, last month, had reported that DoT has firmed up plans to set up the test bed.
However, the telecom industry has expressed anguish at the Union Budget for not addressing the key demands such as reduction in certain levies to provide assistance to the stressed sector. “For realizing the PM’s vision of a fully connected and empowered Digital India, we reiterate that the telecom industry is deeply disappointed that none of our key asks have found mention in the Budget. We had sought a reduction in levies and taxes, and an urgent intervention is critical for resuscitating the sector, which is currently experiencing its worst financial health and hyper competition,” said Rajan S Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India. In a statement, Mathews added that the industry was “saddened to see that telecom which is the bedrock for moving the Digital economy forward, continues to remain an orphan”.
In addition, the finance ministry said in the Budget that the Centre expects around 58 per cent increase in revenue at Rs 48,661.42 crore from the telecom sector in 2018-19, compared with the revised revenue estimate of Rs 30,736 crore for the ongoing financial year. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) mainly earns revenue in form of licence fee and spectrum usage charges from telecom operators, apart from auction of airwaves.