BharatNet is a project of national importance to establish, by 2017, a highly scalable network infrastructure accessible on a non-discriminatory basis, to provide on demand, affordable broadband connectivity of 2 Mbps to 20 Mbps for all households and on demand capacity to all institutions, to realise the vision of Digital India, in partnership with States and the private sector. The objective is to facilitate the delivery of e-governance, e-health, e-education, e-banking, Internet and other services to the rural India.
The Union Cabinet recently approved a revised implementation strategy for the BharatNet project by opting for public-private partnership mode in 16 states to cover around 3,60,000 villages at a total cost of Rs 29,430 crore. Of this, the government will provide Rs 19,041 crore as viability gap funding.
- National Optical Fibre Network (NoFN) which is now renamed as BharatNet project was launched in 2012.
- The project aims to provide affordable broadband services to citizens and institutions in rural and remote areas, in partnership with States and the private sector.
- It involves connecting all the 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats in the country to the block headquarters for provision of both bandwidth and dark fibre on a universal and non-discriminatory basis.
- The network is capable of providing scalable bandwidth of up to 1 GBPS.
- The entire project is being funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), which was set up for improving telecom services in rural and remote areas of the country.
- Bharat Broadband Nigam Ltd(BBNL) was created as the special purpose vehicle created to execute the project.
- BharatNet will now extend up to all inhabited villages beyond the gram panchayats (GPs) in the said states.
- Over 3.6 lakh villages over 16 states of the country will be covered under the expanded BharatNet programme.
- The revised strategy includes creation, upgradation, operation, maintenance and utilisation of BharatNet by the concessionaire who will be selected by a competitive international bidding process.
- The states to be covered under the revised plan are Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
BharatNet is a mega project, widely dispersed to the remotest corners of the country. Among the various challenges faced in its execution are:
- The scheme has failed to deliver on its objective of triggering a broadband revolution across the country.
- The project has been marred with delays and multiple extensions.
- The quality of connectivity and the range of services provided at the last mile remains the key.
- Till date, 1.56 lakh out of the 2.5 lakh village panchayats have been connected with broadband. BharatNet has achieved little in terms of actual connectivity and utilisation.
- Maintaining coordination among multiple stakeholders including CPSUs, state governments, state implementation agencies, project implementation agencies and suppliers;
- Working in remote and difficult terrain, especially hilly areas, rocky terrain and left-wing extremism-affected regions;
- Limited availability of experienced executing agencies/resources to take up simultaneous work throughout the country;
- Delays in right-of-way permissions, especially for defence, forest areas and highways;
- Unavailability of suitable government buildings or custodians for equipment installation in GPs;
- Change of government/bureaucracy in states, affecting continuity;
- BSNL’s stressed financials, affecting progress;
- Delay in the finalisation of tenders by the state and implementing agencies;
- Frequent lockdowns amidst the Covid-19 crisis.
- 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.
- State governments must be brought on board to ensure that the project gets adequate support at the district and panchayat levels.
- All resources and energies would have to be mobilised so that all gram panchayats are reached in the shortest possible time.
- A thorough inquiry into the effectiveness and outcomes of the money already spent is also needed.
- The need of the hour is to get the support of private players through investments to take the vision of BharatNet forward, providing broadband connectivity on a non-discriminatory basis universally to the entire rural population and institutions, as per demand and at an affordable price.
- In terms of implementation, we can look at some models which have been adopted in other countries. In Australia, the Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) program was started in 2007, in response to data which showed that internet services were not available for rural and remote areas. A one-time incentive payment was offered to internet service providers to supply broadband services in eligible areas.
- 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.
- 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.
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.