The government is attempting to change all four tyres of a moving car that is fast running out of fuel. It will need tremendous planning and management skills, cooperation from political parties not friendly to the government and dollops of luck to get this part of Digital India completed.
In the first part of this series of articles on Digital India, we looked at the overall program framework of nine pillars that will have to come together to make this program successful. The building blocks of the program lie in the Digital Foundation Layer, which comprises of three pillars – they deal with creating the physical fiber and telecom infrastructure required to enable the service delivery components, which make up the rest of the Digital India program.
While creating an optical fiber-based broadband infrastructure across the country is the central tenet of this initiative, the government has implicitly also added wireless telecom infrastructure as one of the foundational pillars.
Achieving the targets set by the government for these pillars is, however, the toughest hurdle facing the Digital India program. If Digital India were a track and field event, getting the digital foundation right is the steeplechase of the program – the toughest and most intricate element.
This is the most critical foundational pillar of the program. And the government is already on the back foot even at the budget and resource allocation stage, given the legacy of the National Optic Fiber Network (NOFN) initiative.
Based on a Telecom Commission recommendation, the NOFN was launched by UPA-2 in the year 2011. The target was to cover 2,50,000 villages, spread across 631 districts, with broadband connectivity by 2013. The implementation was to be done via a special purpose vehicle called Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL). This was set up as a new PSU, not directly linked to the existing players BSNL or MTNL to ensure that the existing resource constraints and operational constraints did not plague the NOFN roll out. BBNL was to leverage the existing fiber of three big PSUs: Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL), with provision to lay extra fiber to reach the designated villages.
However, it took almost 18 months to get all the states and union territories on board via signing a multipartite memorandum of understanding (MOUs) to start the work on laying the fiber-optic cables. Even today, the MOUs with Tamilnadu and Lakshadweep are not in place. And at the time of the Digital India program roll out, only a handful of gram panchayats (GPs) had achieved fiber connectivity. The following data, sourced from the BBNL website demonstrates the sloppy pace of work between 2011 and 2015 with just over 1% of the connectivity targets achieved thus far after a time overrun of 2 years.
Under Digital India, the government has now set the target of laying the fiber-optic cables for BharatNet – the new avatar of NOFN which involves improved technology, multiple access modes other than fiber and improved quality of fiber – by March 2017.
The work involves laying almost 600,000 kms of cables in just about 21 months or an average of 950 kms of cables every day starting immediately. This is what has been achieved in the past four years in total! There are several obstacles to this ambition. The three PSUs involved in the fiber work do not have the right of way outside their own network set up to add the last mile connectivity. Any land acquisition or land reuse involved becomes a state government task to be facilitated and with the Land Reforms Bill hanging in limbo, this aspect remains a hard constraint with no solution in sight. Unless the individual states show gumption, it would not be possible to extend the fiber connections available at district or tehsil level to the GPs.
Additionally the program now envisages using a different type of optical fiber which can work over 50 kms without the need for amplification. Procurement and testing of the fiber in local conditions is another hurdle BharatNet should cross. Not all GPs have proper terrestrial access and the government will have to plan for radio or satellite connectivity for almost 25,000 GPs. Solar power based radio connectivity is being experimented with high-frequency bands that are license exempt for these GPs.
Overall, it appears that getting all the pieces of the puzzles for BharatNet is a herculean task. The government is attempting to change all four tyres of a moving car that is fast running out of fuel. It will need tremendous planning and management skills, cooperation from political parties not friendly to the government and dollops of luck to get this part of Digital India completed.
While there are several end use scenarios of BharatNet just within the government sphere, another issue to deal with is that the private players are now moving towards high-speed wireless connectivity investments. Two of the largest players – Airtel and Reliance Jio – are now committed to providing 4G telecom services. Airtel is already live in multiple cities, and Reliance Jio expects to go live by the end of this year.
While these services are still predominantly urban in nature, the economics of government offering the BharatNet backbone to private players continue to become unfavorable. Private players in some circles may want to use BharatNet for their retail services, but the top 3 or 4 players in the telco space will most likely not be interested – this raises questions on the economic viability of BharatNet and its maintenance – which will require year on year government funding support.
Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity
Several parts of the country today are not connected on mobile networks, let alone getting broadband connectivity. This pillar addresses extending mobile services to every corner of the country. The government plans to lay extra emphasis on North East and Left Wing Extremism affected states. In an earlier Swarajya article, this author had written about the North East telecom focus in the first year of Modi government.
Digital India continues to extend that focus, with a provision of ₹16,000 crores separately for this implementation to the Department of Telecommunications. This allocation of budget will span over four years, and the target is to provide complete radio connectivity across India by 2018. This target is slightly behind the new revised BharatNet / NOFN completion date but the extra time budgeted is understandable given the difficult terrain and the security challenges to be dealt with to complete the project.
Given the explicit targeting of mobile towers and infrastructure this year in Jammu and Kashmir, it is clear that the militants consider connectivity and improved speed of government reaction their enemy. It is quite conceivable that similar issues will play out in the North East and in Chhatisgarh and Odisha, where the bulk of the connectivity improvement projects will be targeted. The government will also be challenged to protect the installations and again the active involvement of the state governments and their cooperation will be key to achieving the goals set under this pillar.
Public Internet Access Programs
Under this pillar, the government plans to leverage post offices and existing multi-services centers to create a network of Common Service Centers (CSCs) where citizens will be able to transact government business over the Internet, with reduced exposure to actual day to day bureaucracy.
The government plans to establish 1 CSC in every GP. Running each CSC is a challenge in itself requiring much more than connectivity, either over optic fiber or radio. The infrastructure will require a robust pakka building, constant power supply, power back up, trained operators, a fall back plan in case of the systems or the connectivity failure and physical security. To get all these elements right on a day to day basis in steady state operations will require active private participation.
Will the government be able to attract private players in high-risk zones where safety is a privilege? How will the government deal with the all pervasive absenteeism, which plagues the government service delivery from schools to district magistrate offices? If the government plans on running the CSC itself, it will result in a bloated workforce, thus kicking the can down the road in terms of recurring operational expenditure required to keep the lights on.
Additionally, the experience in this space has not been encouraging. Several Indian cities have experimented with variants of CSCs to allow citizens to pay local taxes, get birth and death certificates and pay utility bills at neighborhood kiosks. These experiments have only been modestly successful. If such kiosks can’t work in Indian metros, how would the government ensure constant service uptime for rural hinterland?
Even the Indian Post is grappling with its transition to a bank or payment bank and despite many years of time, process and IT investments, a clear direction is yet to emerge. In this situation, will Indian Post be able to assume the extra burden of running CSCs and how will RBI approvals play out in the event of banking operations coexisting with these CSCs?
These are fundamental design questions that need to be addressed before big bang service provisioning is put in place.
Perhaps the government will take a state-specific view of the BharatNet roll out, enabling a few states to move towards achieving the full program benefits. In general, any sentiment other than cautious optimism will be an overstatement when it comes to getting the foundations of Digital India right. Based on how these pillars fare, the government to citizen or G2C interface will succeed or fail. The next article in this series will cover these G2C pillars.