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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

CSC, private contractors spar over BharatNet costs; contractors allege CSC exercising monopoly

Contractors allege Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s (MeitY) Common Service Centres (CSC) were exercising a monopoly by providing services at nonviable costs.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi | Updated: July 12, 2020 5:12:55 am
BharatNet, BharatNet scheme, BharatNet csc, BharatNet phase 2, BharatNet project, Bharat Broadband Network Limited  In January this year, the DoT had brought in the private sector to try and speed up the work on BharatNet phase one and two.

The central government’s ambitious rural internet connectivity scheme BharatNet has run into problems again as private telcos and equipment suppliers have alleged that Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s (MeitY) Common Service Centres (CSC) were exercising a monopoly by providing services at nonviable costs. A meeting in this regard held at the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on Tuesday to try and resolve the stand-off between the telcos and CSC ended without a conclusion, senior officials close to the development said.

“There are people against CSC doing BharatNet. They provide money directly to the village level entrepreneur (VLE) to complete the work. For other service providers, there are multiple levels of contractors involved at every stage, which results in very little income for the VLE. One can gauge why private contractors are not happy,” a senior official who attended the meeting told The Indian Express.

In January this year, the DoT had roped in the private sector to try and speed up the work on BharatNet phase one and two. The CSCs, which have a expansive rural network had also been selected to complete pending work on the internet connectivity scheme.

The CSCs, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for essential services such as banking, insurance, education, among others, started the work on BharatNet by allowing VLEs to do the service and maintenance work on existing infrastructure. The VLEs had in due course of time also been allowed to provide fibre-to-the-home and Wi-Fi connections from the panchayat level to individual homes in the vicinity.

The absence of any intermediaries in between had ensured that their costs remained very low, which private players have alleged are not viable in the long run, a DoT official said.

“They wanted to explore the possibility of involving other private parties for managing BharatNet. The CSC have in their defence said that if any player can manage to provide a better service at lower costs them, they would have no objection to involvement of any such service providers,” the official said.

This is not the first time the CSCs have faced objections with respect to their work on BharatNet. In May, the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), a SPV under the DoT had raised contentions against the CSCs shifting equipment without informing them.

This, the BBNL had then said, was done in violations of agreements and could create problems in the future when the said equipment would have to be handed over to a new private operator.

The BharatNet project, which initially began as the National Optical Fibre Network in October 2011, has faced multiple problems till date. In 2011, the then central government had said that the project to connect all the 2.5 lakh gram panchayat (GP) would be completed within the next two years.

The deadline was initially pushed by 24 months to December 2015. Between 2011 and 2014, barely any work was done as the government had managed to lay down only 350 km of optical fibre as against a target of 350,000 km.

With a change of government in 2014, the project — re-christened as BharatNet — aimed to connect with internet all 2.5 lakh GPs and make them service ready by 2018.

In 2018, the target for completion of BharatNet was pushed back by 12 months to March 2019, and later revised to March 2020. The project, initially conceptualised in 2011, has been delayed for over 92 months now. The new deadline for the completion of the project has been set to August 2021.

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