With the turn of the decade as the country was slowly beginning to wake up to the possibilities of a world connected by an information superhighway, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre launched the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) initiative to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country to the internet.
As part of the scheme, the government envisaged 100 Mbps connectivity to all the GPs and non-discriminatory access of the government network to service providers like internet service providers (ISPs), cable operators and other content providers.
Existing fibre cables of public sector undertakings (PSUs) – BSNL, RailTel and PowerGrid, were to be utilised within the NOFN scheme with incremental fibre cables to be laid wherever necessary. Although as part of the UPA’s plan 300,000 km of optical fibre network was to be laid until 2014, only a dismal 350 km could be laid.
Post national elections in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government rechristened the NOFN as BharatNet and set up a new plan for the scheme’s implementation. BharatNet was formulated as a collaborative project between the Centre and states, with a three-phased implementation.
– Under the first phase, which ended in December 2017, broadband connectivity to 1 lakh GPs was planned with underground optic fibre cable (OFC) lines.
– Under the second phase, to be finished by March 2019, all 250,500 GPs are to be connected with a mix of underground cables, radio and satellite media and aerial OFCs, with last mile connectivity to be ensured through Wi-Fi hotspots.
– The third and last phase, between 2019 and 2023 will focus on future-proofing the network and ensuring quality of service.
As of 22 April 2018, the government had ensured broadband connectivity to 108,019 GPs, (excluding data from Andhra Pradesh) with the central government contributing over Rs 11,000 crore towards the scheme in phase one.
The state-wise number of service-ready GPs until 20 April 2018 is as follows,
Now, let’s take a look at the actual optical fibre laid during the course of three years, from when it was envisioned in 2014 as a part of Digital India programme, until 2017 as it passed through several phases of replanning. The data from 12 November 2017 shows us the following,
As can be seen from the data, while most states have out-performed the planned laying of optical fibre, a few states like Maharastra, Mizoram, Uttarakhand haven’t been able to meet the objective.
Now, let’s take a look a number of GPs connected in these states and Union Territories.
Again, most states have over-performed and have many more GPs now connected with optical fibre than planned. However, there have been laggards, like Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which failed to connect any GPs despite central planning. The gaps in implementation in West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Tripura and Mizoram are noticeable too.
While the infrastructure for connecting the GPs to internet is being laid by the government, private players have been roped in for providing last-mile access of internet to the villages. The major players in this field are Reliance Jio and Bharati Airtel, and have paid Rs 13 crore and Rs 5 crore respectively as an advance for buying bandwidth from the government.
As part of phase 2 of the BharatNet, the government is planning more than 6 lakh Wi-Fi hotspots across the GPs, with 2-5 hotspots per GP. India currently has 38,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country, 15,000 of which were set up during the first phase of BharatNet. The government hopes that more than 10 crore people will benefit from the hotspots once operationalised.
As some of these hotspots won’t be commercially viable for ISPs initially, the government plans to inject Rs 3,600 crore as viability gap funding with a total outlay for this plan to be about Rs 10,000 crore.
But why is the scheme important? Why is there a need for the government to step into laying the infrastructure at all? Why not let the private players take over completely and let demand fuel supply?
As it happens, apart from the obvious government responsibility to ensure that all citizens, both urban and rural, enjoy equal access to government services, there’s an economic reason behind the rural internet push too.
A study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, showed that a 10 per cent increase in growth of internet subscribers can lead to an increase of 2.6 per cent in the rate of growth of gross domestic product (GDP). Hence, the government believes that once completed, BharatNet can add upto Rs 4.5 lakh crore to the national GDP.
The government taking up the Digital India programme seriously, therefore, makes sense. And unlike the previous UPA government, the first phase has seen the government over-delivering on all fronts. While there have been state-specific hits and misses, the overall implementation of the scheme deserves to be lauded. As the second phase of this project of national importance is now underway, here’s hoping that the successes of the first phase will be repeated and Prime Minister Modi’s dream of a digital India comes true before his first term ends.
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