BharatNet

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Context: An expert committee reviewed the National Optic Fiber Network (NOFN) and proposed a modified project called BharatNet. 

Relevance:
Prelims: Economic and Social Development Sustainable Development, Poverty, Inclusion, Demographics, Social Sector initiatives, etc

To ensure internet access, as well as the opportunity to avail of the many services and products, both government and private, which are available online, infrastructure creation for internet connectivity plays a very important role.
The Government has recently announced the National Broadband Mission, which seeks to provide access to all villages in India by 2022. While we await more information on how this will be implemented, for now, we have BharatNet.

BharatNet:

  • BharatNet Project is the world’s largest rural broadband connectivity programme using Optical fiber. 
  • This project has evolved from the earlier National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project of providing 100 Mbps to all gram panchayats (GPs).
  • It is implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) – a special purpose vehicle under the Telecom Ministry and is the Government of India’s ambitious rural internet connectivity programme.
    • It has subsumed all the ongoing and proposed broadband network projects.
    • The project is being executed by BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid and is being funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
  • BharatNet has the vision to establish a scalable network by 2017 towards providing affordable broadband connectivity of 2 Mbps to 20 Mbps to all rural households and institutions.
  • It aims to connect all of India’s households, specifically rural households through demand, affordable high-speed internet connectivity to fulfill the objectives of the Digital India programme in partnership with the states and the private sector.
  • The Bharat Net project proposes broadband connectivity to households under village Panchayats and even to government institutions at the district level.
  • It intends to cover all 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats for the provision of E-governance, E-healthcare, E-Commerce, E-Education, and Public Interest Access services.
  • The pieces of equipment for the programme are indigenously designed and are manufactured in India, under the “Make in India” initiative.
  • NOFN had not incorporated any revenue model but Bharat Net has.
  • Phases of the project:
    1. The first phase envisages providing one lakh gram panchayats with broadband connectivity by laying underground optic fiber cable (OFC) lines that have been achieved.
    2. The second phase will provide connectivity to all 2,50,500 gram panchayats in the country using an optimal mix of underground fiber, fiber over power lines, radio and satellite media.
      • It was to be completed by March 2019.
      • For success in phase-2, which also involves laying of OFC over electricity poles, the participation of states is important.
      • This is a new element of the BharatNet strategy as the mode of connectivity by aerial OFC has several advantages, including lower cost, speedier implementation, easy maintenance and utilization of existing power line infrastructure.
      • The last mile connectivity to citizens was proposed to be provided creating Wi-Fi hotspots in gram panchayats.
    3. In the third phase from 2019 to 2023, state-of-the-art, future-proof network, including fiber between districts and blocks, with ring topology to provide redundancy would be created.
  • Bharat Net is being funded through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
  • The Universal Service Obligation Fund(USOF) was established with the fundamental objective of providing access to ‘Basic’ telegraph services to people in the rural and remote areas at affordable and reasonable prices.
  • Subsequently, the scope was widened to provide subsidy support for enabling access to all types of telegraph services including mobile services, broadband connectivity and creation of infrastructure like OFC in rural and remote areas.

Benefits:

BharatNet will provide impetus to India's economy, more employment opportunities, improved service delivery (online e-gram panchayat services, e-governance, e-education, e-health, e-medicine, e-grievances, e-agriculture, e-citizen, etc), Make in India, Digital India, and Startup India initiatives.

Has BharatNet been able to fulfill its objectives?

  • One of the main concerns has been the slow implementation by three central public-sector undertakings (CPSUs)— BSNL, PGCIL, and Railtel diffused control and the relation between Bharat Broadband Network Ltd, the company managing the project and the CPSUs, and lack of appropriate ownership by BBNL.
  • The infrastructure created under BharatNet is treated as a national asset, to be accessible to all service providers.
  • There are many issues with the design and implementation framework of BharatNet, but the issue that threatens to turn BharatNet into a white elephant is the cost that has gone into BharatNet, without getting the appropriate results.
    • The current budget for the BharatNet project is Rs 30,920 crore.
    • The original deadline to complete BharatNet phase -1 was October 2014, though as per an RTI response, it was actually completed in December 2017.
    • As per the same RTI, phase-2 is still in progress and has missed multiple deadlines. 
    • After the inordinate delay in the implementation of phase one of BharatNet, the second phase of the flagship project is also lagging way behind schedule.
  • BharatNet is supposed to be the backbone for digital service delivery in rural areas in India.
    • It is the base on which all other initiatives depend.
    • Hence, the delays in its implementation have a cascading effect on the lived realities of rural citizens.
  • One of the original omissions in the scope of BharatNet is that provision for last-mile connectivity of Gram Panchayats was made quite late, specifically in July 2017.
    • By May 2017, around 1,10,000 Gram Panchayats were service ready, but lack of provision for last-mile connectivity has led to a delay in the operationalization of BharatNet in these GPs.
    • As of 11 March 2018, cables had been laid in 1,13,467 GPs, of which 1,04,548 were service ready, which means that last mile internet connectivity from the GP to the consumer using Wi-Fi hotspots or other means could be provided.
    • However, news reports indicate that only 5,010 GPs have commercial broadband connections.
    • Till 31 October 2018, the average data consumption on these connections has been 660 MB, an extremely low number.
    • This is all the more worrying, because BharatNet, by design, is supposed to be revenue-neutral by 2024.
    • Compounding the problem further, an estimated 19,952 km of optical fiber out of the 27,534 km laid by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) under phase one is now being pulled out and replaced by new optical fiber.
  • The lack of approved detailed project reports, non-existent project implementing agencies, and non-availability of funds have been attributed as the reason for the delay for most of these projects.
  • In a parliamentary committee report, it has been observed that a lack of single window clearance for work related to BharatNet has contributed to a delay in implementation, due to issues such as the right of way, availability of land, clash with existing infrastructure work and the multiple agencies involved in both implementations and giving permissions.


Solutions for better implementation of BharatNet:

  • The solution here could be to reshape the mandate of BBNL and review the role that the State should play in infrastructure creation for BharatNet.
  • BBNL should function as a coordinating authority, rather than performing full implementation functions.
  • In terms of implementation, we can look at some models which have been adopted in other countries.
Learning from Global Examples
  • In Australia, the Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) program was started in 2007, in response to data that showed that internet services were not available for rural and remote areas.
  • The objective was to provide broadband services in areas where they are not commercially available.
  • Minimum internet speeds, as well as the maximum cost to the customer, were detailed in the program.
  • A one-time incentive payment was offered to internet service providers to supply broadband services in eligible areas.
  • The services were divided into three basic tiers, ‘entry’, ‘threshold’ and ‘value-added’.
  • The program was ended in 2011 after it was found that the number of underserved premises in Australia had fallen from over 9,25,000 at the start of the program to 1,60,000.
  • This was attributed to both the program itself, as well as the demand created for commercial internet services through the functioning of the program.

Estonia follows a model where communications undertakings, are invited to provide universal service in a designated area.

  • The price for the service is to be fixed by the State, and there is a provision to compensate the undertaking for any losses incurred in providing universal service.

The United States follows a model where broadband services are included within a Lifeline program, which has been running since 1985 which provides discounted phone and internet service in poorer communities.

  • In the 2016 Lifeline Modernisation Order, the Commission included broadband as a support service in the Lifeline program.
  • The program provides participating households a $9.25 per month credit to use for internet access. 

In India, we can perhaps look at the model of how when there was a need to expand access to banking services for people in rural areas, the State had stepped in by imposing a specific mandate for banks to open a specified number of new branches in rural and underserved areas if they want to expand.

  • We can also learn from some of the models discussed above, where the State either incentivized private service providers to create infrastructure or provided a subsidy to citizens in underserved areas to drive demand.
  • The argument here is not that the State has no role, but that the State's resources and expertise would be better employed in creating enabling regulation and facilitating coordination.
  • The State can always step into infrastructure creation, in areas that may get left behind even after implementing some of the models suggested above.

Conclusion:

Bharat’s need for internet connectivity is extremely urgent, both for accessing State services and information as well as for personal consumption. As the government announces a National Broadband Mission, one hopes that the name change is not merely cosmetic, and also carries with it an updated strategy and implementation design which can create the infrastructure needed for people to have access to a better quality of life.



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