Telecom connectivity to the hinterlands is one of the objectives of the National Democratic Alliance government, for which the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has undertaken three strategic projects to expand network infrastructure to left-wing extremism affected areas, island regions such as Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep, and to the northeastern states of the country. To step up the telecom connectivity in the Northeast Region, the Centre has planned an investment of over Rs 15,000 crore – which includes setting up of mobile towers under the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the northeastern region as well as increasing broadband connectivity through the flagship BharatNet project.
This plan includes expanding connectivity to some of the strategically important states — including those such as Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim that share borders with China. “Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan (CTDP) for the Northeastern region envisages to provide mobile coverage to 8,621 identified uncovered villages by installation of about 6,673 mobile towers and installation of 321 mobile tower sites along National Highways. To cover these uncovered villages, the location is to be decided after survey by Universal Service Provider,” according to information furnished by the DoT in Parliament.
As per the data, 2,805 villages are expected to be covered in Arunachal Pradesh with 1,893 telecom towers, apart from 149 towers along the National Highways in the state. In Sikkim, which also borders China, 23 villages will be covered with telecom connectivity with a total of 20 towers including one along a National Highway.
“The estimated cost of implementation of CTDP for Northeast Region is Rs 5,336.18 crore, to be funded from Universal Service Obligation Fund. The installation of mobile towers is to be completed within 18 months from signing of agreement. The tender for all the states…except Meghalaya have been approved and work is to be completed in 18 months. For Meghalaya, the tender was floated twice, on account of high rates, tender was not approved. A new proposal is under approval process,” Minister of State for Communications (independent charge) Manoj Sinha said in response to a question in Rajya Sabha on December 27, 2017.
At a recent event in Guwahati, underscoring the strategic importance of the Northeastern states, Sinha said that there are a number of villages and areas in the region, which are in remote and hilly locations with poor connectivity. “Under this strategy, 4,240 gram panchayats (GPs) in the Northeast are to be connected by broadband by satellite connectivity by December 2018. The estimated cost of the satellite connectivity to 4,240 GPs is Rs 733 crore,” he added.
The apex decision making body of the DoT — the Telecom Commission — earlier this month granted its approval to a comprehensive strategy for implementation of the BharatNet project in the Northeast Region. As of January 21, as per data provided by Bharat Broadband Network Ltd, active broadband connectivity has been provided to 1,01,936 gram panchayats of the country under the BharatNet project’s first phase. In the phase-I, 2,254 gram panchayats in the states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura were provided connectivity through broadband. In the second phase of the BharatNet project, the government plans to expand the optical fibre network to 1,663 gram panchayats spread across the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.
Earlier this month, the Telecom Commission cleared the DoT’s proposal for providing satellite connectivity in the Northeast Region and Jammu & Kashmir at a cost of Rs 916 crore, which includes capital expenditure and operational expenditure for a period of three years. A senior DoT official informed that members of the Telecom Commission also discussed deployment of newer communications technologies such as free space for geographically difficult areas where laying down fibre and towers was tough.
Similarly, for the left-wing extremism affected areas in states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the Cabinet, in 2014, had approved a project with an implementation cost of Rs 3,567.58 crore for expansion and operation of 1,836 sites across these states as identified by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Later, in 2016, the Centre cleared support of Rs 275 crore from the USOF for 156 additional mobile towers in these areas. The government also chalked up plans to expand telecom connectivity to island regions such as Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep through undersea cable, as well as satellite communication. The Telecom Commission, at its meeting in January, also cleared the proposal for additional support of Rs 342 crore to upgrade the existing 2G network at the islands in Andaman & Nicobar to 4G.