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Connecting Villages: Rural infrastructure initiatives by the government

March 17, 2015

Deploying telecom infrastructure in rural areas is a daunting task that requires higher capex, but yields lower returns as it serves the lower-income population of the country. Higher capex arises due to costs involved in transporting and erecting towers in rough and secluded terrain. For broadband infrastructure, trenching and laying cable and fibre across a vast geography entails cost overruns, which delay project execution. Further, tower management involves outlay on operations, fuel filling, and preventive and corrective maintenance. These issues in a highly distributed geographical environment coupled with power shortages pose a major challenge to telecom infrastructure deployment in rural areas. As a result, telecom infrastructure roll-outs have typically been undertaken by the government. At present, the government is implementing an array of infrastructure projects involving large investments.

tele.net takes stock of the key telecom infrastructure initiatives taken by the government in rural areas, their project specifications and current status…

NOFN project

In order to provide access to broadband services in rural areas, the government is implementing the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project, which aims  to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with minimum 100 Mbps bandwidth. The NOFN is a key project under the Digital India initiative, which aims at developing a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. It is being funded by the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund. The project is being implemented by three central PSUs – Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited and RailTel – and is managed by Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL). A key feature of this project is that the gigabit passive optical network-enabled equipment being used has been indigenously designed and developed by the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and is manufactured domestically.

However, the project has faced several delays owing to cost overruns, right-of-way issues and lack of coordination among government agencies. Phase I of the project has a target of providing broadband connectivity to 50,000 gram panchayats by March 2015. According to technical requirement statistics, about 217,000 km of incremental cable and 7,188 km of pipe have to be laid down to cover 100,000 gram panchayats. As of October 2014, about 3.3 per cent of the total pipe length and 1.62 per cent of cable had been laid. Further, for the 3,000 blocks for which 1,150 tenders had been finalised, work had started in only 10 per cent of the blocks. The slow pace of execution had been due to a variation in the rates of materials, delays in the finalisation of tenders, use of conventional methods and unavailability of required materials.

Idukki district in Kerala is the first in which work has been completed under this project, in January 2015. The district has relatively inaccessible areas and a large tribal and rural population. In all, 52 gram panchayats in this district have been connected through the NOFN. The project aims to provide connectivity to all 152 blocks and 977 gram panchayats in Kerala.

In February 2015, BBNL reported that the pace of execution of the NOFN project has increased, from laying 500 km of cable per month to 1,000 km a week. Nevertheless, it is still below the required target of around 30,000 km a month. Therefore, the government is planning to involve private sector players to bring in efficiency in project execution.

The NOFN project will facilitate the delivery of e-governance, e-health, e-education, e-banking, public internet access, weather, agricultural and other services to rural India. It also seeks to create employment opportunities through operations and maintenance activities, BPO services and rural entrepreneurship.

Phase II of the project is likely to be completed by March 2016, and will cover 100,000 gram panchayats. The remaining 100,000 gram panchayats will be covered under Phase III and will be completed by December 2016.

NER projects

The north-eastern region (NER) is characterised by tough terrain and Left wing extremism (LWE), which increase the cost of infrastructure roll-out and maintenance. To overcome these challenges, the USO Fund has been providing subsidies for many NER projects, which cover the transmission media network, shared passive base transceiver station (BTS) roll-outs in uncovered parts of the states, roll-out of direct exchange lines and provision of access equipment.

Recently, Telecom Consultants India Limited, the consulting agency involved in a NER project, released its estimates on telecom coverage in these states, including uncovered villages and national highways. As per these estimates, 8,621 villages had not been covered in the NER, while 1,272 km of national highway length did not have 2G connectivity. The company has estimated that a total of 6,934 BTSs are required to provide telecom connectivity in these areas. However, activities under this project, are expected to be expedited soon, as the cabinet has now approved these projects under the USO Fund.

This project requires towers of different specifications for the uncovered villages as well as along national highways. For the uncovered villages, heavyweight, narrow and wide ground base towers of 20 metres, 30 metres and 40 metres height are to be installed. Towers to be installed along the national highways are ground base, narrow base towers of 30 metre height and angular ground base, wide base towers of 40 metres height. Angular towers can enable multiple service providers to share common infrastructure.

In most cases, the appropriate tower height depends on the altitude of the tower construction site with respect to the target area to be covered. For the NER, towers are designed to withstand a minimum wind speed of 180 km per hour. The tower designs under this project will be first approved by organisations such as the Structural Engineering Research Centre, and Telecommunication Engineering Centres to ensure structural fitness, safety, load bearing capacity and the ability to withstand wind speed.

LWE project

In June 2014, the cabinet approved BSNL’s proposal to install telecom towers in 10 states at a cost of Rs 35.67 billion in order to provide mobile connectivity in LWE-affected areas. Under this proposal, towers at 2,199 locations will be established across Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. This revised outlay will meet BSNL’s capex requirements for mobile networks in 1,836 sites and opex requirements for 2,199 sites over a five-year time span. BSNL has already identified a sizeable number of tower sites, in consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and has placed purchase orders with Delhi-based VNL Limited and Himachal Futuristic Communications Limited, which emerged as the lowest bidders for procuring telecom equipment. Like other government telecom infrastructure initiatives, the LWE project is also funded by the USO Fund. The network roll-out under the project is being monitored by the MHA, as it is aimed at improving communications and surveillance operations of national security agencies in these regions.

C-DOT initiatives

The government’s technology development centre, C-DOT, plays a key role in developing technologies that can be deployed in rural areas. At present, it is developing a 4G long term evolution (LTE) router and Wi-Fi solution that can provide connectivity in rural and remote areas. The router, called eNodeB, is likely to be launched by March 2015. It is a key component of 4G LTE networks and facilitates service providers to economically and efficiently improve outdoor and indoor mobile service coverage.

C-DOT has also designed the Broadband Wireless Terminal (BWT), which is a cost-effective Wi-Fi solution with hotspots for offering IP connectivity in villages. The centre has already tested this solution at 180 locations. The BWT solution provides horizontal connectivity up to 10 km beyond the panchayat-level NOFN terminal.

Further, C-DoT is working on developing data-oriented infrastructure for next-generation services that include 3G GSM backhaul connectivity and IP-leased lines simulation from the NOFN.

Looking ahead

While the government is investing heavily for improving mobile and broadband connectivity in rural areas, the projects have been hit by delays and cost overruns. To bring about efficiency, it is imperative to involve the private sector as well. The recent development of tenders being launched for private companies under the NOFN project is a positive move in this regard. Further, developing infrastructure and technologies that are better-suited for rural terrain are essential to bring mobile connectivity to the rural areas. The rural teledensity has improved gradually, from 42.67 per cent in December 2013 to 46.09 per cent in December 2014, and similar growth is expected to be witnessed during 2015 as well with the various government initiatives approaching completion.

 
 

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