Both Solar energy and connectivity will be the powerhouses to jumpstart the rural socio-economic development to the next level. While the Solar energy will be the vehicle to deliver a “basic need” (of electricity) for the rural population, the broadband connectivity will be key “enabler” for the socio-economic development in rural areas.
The availability of a robust and reliable broadband connectivity is most critical for the successful implementation of some of the key social sector schemes and programmes in rural areas by the Central and State governments on e-governance, education, health, employment and financial inclusion.
The benefits of the broadband connectivity to the rural population are immense with the convergence of voice, data and video. We will have the children studying in e-classes with state of the art audio-visual content and able guidance of better quality instructors from centralised locations (district/ state headquarters), assisted by local teachers and guides who will also learn in the process. The required information will be available at the click of the button, where today getting a birth certificate may take days, sometimes weeks. The better G2C (Government to Citizens) and C2B (Citizen to Business) interactions will enable better services and socio-economic opportunities for the rural people. Internet connectivity is imperative for the various financial reach initiatives – whether para-banking or micro-financing or the Jan Dhan Yojana.
As the time and cost are two critical elements for the implementation, the key question is how we can rollout the broadband connectivity to the rural areas in the quickest and most cost-effective manner. The government is highly dependent on the speedy implementation of broadband connectivity for the success of its ‘marquee’ Digital India programme. Slow progress in laying out the broadband connectivity will derail many of these programmes – so, the (implementation) time is of critical essence here. Similarly, with the current cost estimates for the rural broadband project to be around Rs. 30,000 crores, cost-effectiveness of the implementation will be very important for a developing economy like us – with a spate of government projects waiting in the pipeline for financial go-ahead.
The time and cost of the project will be primarily dependent on the technology chosen for providing the broadband connectivity. Among the various options, or technology, available to us – namely, Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), Cable modem, Optical fibre cable (OFC) and wireless – the broadband connectivity is being currently implemented through the Optical fibre network, including the last-mile connectivity. When the decision on the technology was taken 5-6 years back, optical fibre technology was certainly the best solution – however, since then, wireless technology has made remarkable progress, particularly on the data communications front which is the crux of broadband connectivity.
Secondly, rolling out a fibre based network will always be a slow process, primarily driven by the logistical and civil work challenges involved. Basically, laying out an optical fibre network involves five stages – approval (right of way), digging, ducting, cable laying and covering the trenches made. Each of these stages pose their own challenges, starting with getting the right of way clearances which involves multiple government bodies, and so, it is highly bureaucratic and slow-moving. The physical work thereafter in the digging-to-filling process involves both physical labour as well as heavy machinery work – mobiling these resources requires careful planning and efficient utilisation. A delay in any stage has ripple effect on subsequent stages, sometimes derailing the downstream plans considerably, leading to time and cost overruns. The project has already started to witness the impact with several revisions of costs and time schedules.
Starting from the initial cost of around 12,000 crores, the project budget has already been revised to Rs. 28,000 crores a month back. The time estimates have also been extended with hardly much progress made on the project since its launch around 5 years back, and the milestones being shifted perennially with the project with the final delivery timeline (covering 100% rural population) extended to 2017.
The biggest worry is these revisions may not be the last ones, and we may face further delay and cost overruns as the project progresses. This will not only slow down the progress of the Digital India movement, but may lead to higher effective costs across the various social programmes. In absence of connectivity across a wide chunk of population, significant resources and focus would be diverted to build two public access platforms simultaneously – a cost-effective and efficient online platforms for the connected population and an offline platform for the unconnected – to ensure that the impact of the programmes to reach all segments of target population. Besides, due to duality of processes, there will be duplicity of efforts in managing people-facing processes, data management and record keeping, as well as providing envisaged services.
So, as mentioned earlier, let us take a step back and review the judiciousness of employing a fibre based network for rural connectivity. While the connectivity to the district headquarters may still be through fibre based network, the connectivity thereon to the block-level – and to panchayats – can be through wireless connectivity. Of the estimated 6 lakh route km of fibre network required to be laid out for this project, roughly 20-25% would be for connectivity upto district headquarters, with the balance needed to provide connectivity from district HQs to the village panchayats. Taking off the load of the “district-to-village” leg from the fibre network rollout will dramatically speed up the progress of the project, particularly due to easier right of way along highways and roads connecting the district headquarters.
In the last decade (like earlier too), wireless technology have made quantum progress on data communications with the 4G/LTE technology – currently being widely implemented across the globe. While at absolute levels, 4G technology may yet to emulate the peak data access speeds of a fibre based network, the quality of data communication for 4G with much higher data speeds and lower latency (as compared to incumbent 2G/3G technologies) suffice for most of the data communication needs. Secondly, with further technology advancements in the pipeline, the gap – vis-a-vis fibre network – will keep receding. Today, 4G networks are primarily being seen as an urban phenomenon – this is not surprising, as despite the 3G coverage mainly limited to urban areas, the telecom companies are still struggling to make their 3G networks profitable.
Employing 4G technology for rural connectivity has distinct advantages over a fibre network. One, with much less bureaucratic and logistical challenges, a wireless network will require a much smaller turnaround time for network rollout. Post rollout too, the operations and maintenance cost for a wireless network will be much lesser. Thirdly, the technology upgrade of a wireless network will be less tedious and entail lesser costs. Besides, the same wireless network can be used to extend high quality mobile services for the rural population – which would have been completely unviable on a standalone model.
The wireless broadband connectivity to the rural countryside could be built on the public-private partnership (PPP) model with the state-owned BSNL and private telcos sharing the geographies. As multiple-operator competitive scenario will not be viable in a rural areas, area-wise allocation (for example, district-wise) can be done to telecom companies to build and operate the 4G rural wireless networks in their respective geographies. A model similar to USOF model (Universal Service Obligation Fund) can be used by government to allocate areas or geographies.
To fully utilise the rural connectivity and the Digital India programmes, well-equipped infrastructure should be built at each of the connecting nodes at the panchayats. Current administrative and citizen services facilities in the villages is completely inadequate on all fronts – civil structures, trained manpower, equipments and IT systems, electricity supply, etc. While rolling out the connectivity, the concerned ministries and administrative bodies need to come together to simultaneously design, plan and build the service delivery infrastructure at the respective locations. A basic, no-frill building can be constructed at each of the nodes with required equipment and systems powered by Solar and renewable energy (supplemented with grid supply where available). This facility can be used for various services – education, e-governance, banking, e-trading or commerce, etc. – on a time-sharing basis across the working hours. This could also provide another sizeable project for the MNREGA programme.
In fact, we would see many innovative services and applications emerge once the digital connectivity is available. For example, we can have facilities for video calls by people living abroad or in distant urban areas to call their relatives living in rural areas – the callers can afford to bear the expenses of both calling & receiving ends (through a net-based payment facility). Similarly, another facility could be corporates operating in the rural areas to use the data connectivity for more regular and smoother information and report sharing with their headquarters – zonal, regional or national. Basically, with the connectivity and the infrastructure in place, new services will emerge to reinforce the current socio-economically driven business model for the Digital India project, further enhancing the viability of this initiative and the incumbent programmes. Besides, this will also create sizeable white-collared employment opportunities for the rural working population, simultaneously reducing the rural exodus to urban areas.
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