The Narendra Modi government calls it the “world’s largest connectivity project”. But BharatNet — which envisages laying of about 8 lakh kilometre of incremental optical fibre cable (OFC) to all the 2,50,000-plus Gram Panchayats (GP) in the country at an estimated cost of Rs 42,068 crore ($6.2 billion) — will be unable to meet its March 2020 deadline. What’s more, there aren’t many private players utilising the already-laid fibre to provide services from the GPs onwards, even as rural internet penetration is growing independently through private telecom players.
Initiated by the UPA government in October 2011, BharatNet was originally named National Optical Fibre Network or NOFN. It’s being financed by the Universal Service Obligation Fund of the Department of Telecommunications, through a 5 per cent levy on the revenues of private telecom service providers. The project’s primary objective is to extend fibre connectivity — available at the state capital, district headquarters and blocks — to every GP, thereby providing access to broadband internet services to 69 per cent of India’s rural population.
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) data, out of the country’s 1,186.63 million telephone subscribers (mobile phones plus landlines) as on June 30, 2019, the rural share is 511.05 million or 43.1 per cent. For broadband internet, rural India’s share in the total subscriber base of 594.59 million is only 202.85 million or 34.1 per cent. The overall rural broadband penetration, too, was just 22.6%, as against 93.2% in urban India.
To bridge the rural-urban digital divide, Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) — the government-owned organisation incorporated in February 2012 to oversee the NOFN/BharatNet project — has sought to utilise the 12 lakh km of existing OFC network extended to the block level and owned by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL). From each block, where BSNL has a point of presence with a power plant, air-conditioning, security and other necessary infrastructure, BBNL taps their fibre and extends it further to the GPs of that block/sub-district.
Phase I of BharatNet, which commenced in June 2014 after the Narendra Modi-led government took over, was completed in December 2017. It, in fact, over-achieved the 1 lakh target for this phase by covering 1,22,908 GPs with an investment of around $1.64 billion (Rs 11,200 crore). In the first phase, three lakh km of BSNL’s 7-8 lakh km existing fibre was used and an average of 2.7 km of new underground OFC was laid per GP. In all, over three lakh km of incremental fibre was rolled out, with the work distributed among BSNL (70%), RailTel (15%) and Power Grid Corporation of India (15%).
In the second phase, the remaining 1,29,827 GPs are to be covered through 5 km of new fibre per GP. This phase incorporates a mix of both underground and aerial fibre as well as radio and satellite connectivity to reach more inaccessible locations such as Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
“No single project in the world is trying to handle something of this capacity,” said a top BBNL official. In comparison to the eight lakh km or so fibre being laid at the cost of $6.2 billion over six years, Australia undertook a similar two lakh km project over 10 years at $34.7 billion. While Indonesia’s project was 67,000 km over six years for $1.5 billion, Brazil spent $3.3 billion over five years for 30,000 km.
However, despite laying such a huge network, its utilisation is far from satisfactory. BBNL’s latest data as on October 3 show the total OFC length laid under BharatNet at 3,70,730 km and reaching 1,38,063 GPs, with 1,25,468 of them also recording connectivity and installation of equipment. At the same time, while Wi-Fi installation has taken place only in 44,046 GPs, it is operational in just 14,843 GPs. The Wi-Fi user numbers, too, are a mere 11.92 lakh, with monthly data usage at 69,409 gigabytes.
BBNL initially considered setting up its own internet service. But in 2015, it decided only to build the OFC infrastructure and make bandwidth available to all service providers. The annual pricing was Rs 7,000 for 10 megabits per second (Mbps) and Rs 2 lakh for 1 gigabit per second data transfer rates, besides Rs 2,250 for one kilometre of dark fibre. Of the revenue collected, BBNL keeps 30 per cent and the rest goes to BSNL.
“It hasn’t worked as cable operators or small internet service providers using BBNL’s fibre infrastructure also have to pay for leasing the BSNL bandwidth to get to the block level. That charge, at around Rs 3.3 lakh per 10 Mbps, is too high for providing services in any village/GP area,” admitted the BBNL official. BSNL has now given Common Service Centers a 50 per cent discount to connect to the block level and utilise BBNL’s laid fibre.
Further, the quality of BSNL’s existing fibre is subpar. “We couldn’t even find OFC in some of the locations where they supposedly existed. In some other places, the fibre was cut and they were not repairing it. In the current phase, we are laying new fibre from the optical line terminal at the block headquarters itself, rather than the fibre point of interconnect. Right now, end-to-end connectivity is dependent on BSNL fibre,” the official pointed out.
In the second phase, implementation is also being done through state governments and public-private partnership (PPP). But only 71,292 km of the five lakh km plan has been completed. “The advances that we had given to BSNL was, in many cases, used to pay salaries instead of the contractors who had done the job,” disclosed the official. Interestingly, in 2012, BBNL had asked private operators also to provide details of their fibre network, which could be leveraged for NOFN. “They did not share the details. The private players usually swap fibre with one other rather than sell bandwidth that attracts tax,” said the official.
However, the BBNL official wasn’t sure whether the PPP model, which the Modi government has opted for to take over the remaining work in BharatNet, would be successful. The large telecom service providers are the ones most likely to join. Thus, a government project to provide rural internet connectivity has eventually submitted to private party implementation. And even though the model for utilisation has gone under many iterations, the challenges of power supply, land acquisition and maintenance of equipment at the GPs are yet to disappear.