Amid right-of-way hurdles stymying the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), a vital component of the NDA government’s Digital India push that aims at plugging the rural connectivity gap, the Centre has given in to the demands made by a section of states to implement their part of the scheme on their own.
An active role for states is being seen by the Centre as a bid to expedite project execution and tide over right-of-way hurdles, as states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are among those seeking their participation to be conditional to them getting the mandate to take up their leg of the project on their own.
“On the BharatNet project for connecting 2,50,000 gram panchayats (GPs), states have come on board. Some like Tamil Nadu want to go with their own model, which is fine…,” Minister for Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad told The Indian Express. According to government officials involved in the exercise, the NOFN project — envisaged as a Centre-State joint effort where states were expected to contribute by way of waiving off the right-of-way charges — is running behind schedule. An internal assessment by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) suggests that it is unlikely to be completed by its deadline of December 2016. While in 2014-15, plans were afoot to execute work for 1 lakh GPs, which was later scaled down to 50,000 GPs, data up to March 2015 showed that only about 20,000 GPs had been covered under the NOFN — just about 40 per cent of the planned target. As on December 6, 2015, optical fibre cable laying in 32,272 GPs had been completed and 76,624 kilometer fibre laid, according to latest government data.
The NOFN project, officials said, is now being monitored on a weekly basis and a progress report is being sent to the DoT and other stakeholders every Monday. Prasad said that his ministry is in the process of finalising the implementation details, including the DPR (detailed project report) norms. “Then we have SPV (special purpose vehicle) model where the states and Centre are working together. 18 states have come on board and am a little overboarded now… It is a very transformational programme, we took about 30 years to lay down 10 lakh kilometre of optical fibre. With 3-year plus, we are going to lay down 7 lakh kilometres,” he said. With respect to the funding requirements, as against an indicative cost of about Rs 20,100 crore for the NOFN project, an amount of Rs 3,054.43 crore has been released till October 31, 2015, by the Universal Service Obligation Fund to Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle created under the Companies Act of 1956 for execution of the NOFN project.
A review done by the DoT in mid-2015 showed that the biggest hurdle dogging the project is the right-of-way issue. Despite the Centre having agreements with the state governments for getting the right-of-way available free of cost, officers involved in the implementation have reported back that “whenever they go to lay the optical fibre, they run into construction and population issues… even in the fields, the farmers have objections”.
As a counter, Andhra Pradesh is learnt to have come up with a model under which it proposed to float its own corporation that will take up the work of laying the optical fibre cable network. A state government official said that Andhra Pradesh has communicated to the Centre that the funds earmarked to be spent for this project in AP should be handed over directly to it as support. The state has also indicated that it is willing to put in the rest of the money on its own as it wants to further scale-up the project and utilise the infrastructure for multiple uses than what was originally envisaged by the Centre.
Andhra Pradesh’s proposal has now been accorded a go-ahead by the Telecom Commission, following which Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have come up with a similar proposal for the implementation of the NOFN project, officials involved in the exercise said. The Centre is now looking at this option as a way to tide over the right-of-way hurdles.
“Since the Telecom Commission has given its ‘in-principle’ approval to the Andhra Pradesh proposal, two more states have come up for this kind of a project. Tamil Nadu has shown interest. Another one is Gujarat. There may be more states which may come up and take up this project on their own. If they take up this project on their own, many problems will be resolved,” a senior DoT official said.
Apart from the right-of-way issue, the other big challenge flagged by the implementation agencies is the lack of availability of contractors who can execute the kind of specialised work required for a project of this scale. To tide over some of these problems, states where private contractors can take up a project of this scale on their own have been instructed to set aside the model of the PSU-driven projects and instead hand over the job on a turnkey basis to these project contractors, officials said.
Other hurdles include the non-availability of PLB ducts (used for laying optical fibre cables) at various sites in the states, delay in the finalisation of OFC trenching and laying tenders by implementing utilities.
Incidentally, to review the NOFN implementation strategy and approach, the government had constituted a committee on January 14, 2015, which held discussions with the implementing Central Public Sector Undertakings and BBNL to understand the challenges and problems faced by them in implementation. The committee submitted its report on March 31, 2015, where it highlighted three broad issues — NOFN technology and architecture; implementation strategy and broadband service delivery using NOFN. A DoT official said the changes suggested by the committee have not been incorporated in the scheme as yet.
The project, initiated in 2011 and was to be funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund with the aim of providing broadband connectivity to over 2 lakh GPs. It aimed to leverage the existing fibre optical network of Central utilities — BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid — and laying incremental fibre wherever necessary to bridge the connectivity gap between panchayats and blocks.
BBNL was created as a public sector undertaking for its execution.
Once implemented, the project is intended to enable the Centre to provide e-services and e-applications nationally and a minimum of 100 Mbps bandwidth is to be made available at each GP with non-discriminatory access to the network for all categories of service providers.