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BharatNet Roll-out: Modified implementation framework for Phase II

August 11, 2017
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The BharatNet project, driven by the objective of providing high speed broadband access (100 Mbps) to 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country, is one of the key initiatives under the government’s ambitious Digital India programme. The scope of the project involves the laying of 600,000 km of optic fibre cables (OFCs) and incremental fibre of around 2.4 km in each GP from the fibre point of interconnect to a GP. This is aimed at enhancing internet connectivity in rural areas and providing fibre to service providers at the GP level on a non-discriminatory basis. Further, the project envisages providing last-mile connectivity to GPs.

The government is implementing the project in three phases. Under Phase I, 100,000 GPs were to be connected by March 2017. In the second and third phases, 150,000 GPs and 250,000 GPs will be connected by March 2018 and March 2019 respectively.

Progress under Phase I

While Bharat Broadband Network Limited is the executing agency, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited are the implementing agencies for Phase I. As of June 25, 2017, the three implementing agencies together have lit 21,790 GPs, while OFC has been installed in 92,746 GPs, which is far behind the targets set under Phase I.

The slow progress can be attributed to major operational problems, the involvement of very few agencies, issues in procuring equipment and the use of only one mode for laying fibre, that is, underground deployment.

Implementation strategy for Phase II

Based on the past experience and learnings of the implementing agencies, a modified implementation framework has been proposed for Phase II. The framework involves a decentralised decision-making process and decentralised procurement of equipment. An optimal mix of media (aerial, radio and satellite) is to be used, in addition to the underground laying of fibre for connecting GPs. Around 70,000 GPs are planned to be covered by underground OFC, 48,000 by aerial OFC, 30,000 by radio and 2,000 by satellite.

The government has strengthened the framework for monitoring Phase II of the project by setting up specific committees. These committees facilitate decision making and resolve coordination issues related to the implementation process. The monitoring committees include:

• An empowerment committee under the chairmanship of the secretary, Department of Telecommunications, to review the progress of the project and resolve policy-level implementation issues.

• A steering committee under the administrator of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund for the resolution of inter-agency implementation issues.

• A technical standing committee for deciding technology-related issues pertaining to the implementation of the project.

The government has also developed a mobile application-based geographic information system for monitoring and capturing data at the field level.

Role of the states

The government has decided to allocate a substantial role in implementing the project to the state governments. This is because the state governments have the infrastructure needed for laying OFC networks; besides, the state electricity boards and distribution companies can lay aerial OFC on electricity poles, and right-of-way issues are easily manageable at the state level. Therefore, it was decided that states and state agencies will be involved in the second phase of the project, besides the three existing central public sector undertakings. The state governments were assigned the role of mapping and conducting surveys, executing projects and establishing last-mile connectivity for providing e-governance, e-health and e-education services. Meanwhile, the government has designated state nodal officers for reviewing and resolving implementation issues in the states.

Last-mile connectivity

As the issue of providing last-mile connectivity remained unaddressed during Phase I of the project, the government decided to incorporate a framework for providing last-mile connectivity under the modified implementation strategy. This will be established by setting up Wi-Fi hotspots at various GPs. To this end, the USO Fund recently signed an agreement with BSNL to set up Wi-Fi hotspots at 25,000 rural exchanges of the operator. Further, it  has signed an agreement with common service centres to set up Wi-Fi hotspots at 5,000 GPs. Going forward, the USO Fund aims to expand the coverage of these Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas. In this regard, the USO Fund is in talks with BSNL, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and RailTel to set up Wi-Fi hotspots at GPs and railway stations located in rural areas.

Based on a presentation by Arun Agarwal, Director, USO Fund

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