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Slow Progress: Rural telecom projects strive to meet deadlines

July 21, 2016

With the aim to bridge the digital divide between the rural and urban areas, the government has been implementing various projects in order to improve telecom infrastructure in the country’s rural regions. These projects are being funded by the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund, which is supported by levies collected from telecom service providers.

However, the progress of these projects has been rather slow and the implementing agencies have missed several deadlines. This can be attributed to the slow disbursal of funds, delays in procuring key equipment and the lack of participation by private players.

tele.net takes a look at the status of various projects being undertaken by the government to improve telecom connectivity in rural areas… 

BharatNet

The BharatNet project, which aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats through optical fibre, forms the backbone of the Digital India initiative. It is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited, and the cable is being laid by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel Corporation of India (RailTel) and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited.

So far, the implementation of the BharatNet project has been extremely sluggish, owing to a number of factors such as significant cost revisions, delays in procuring clearances and equipment, and implementation gaps. As per the USO Fund, optical fibre cable (OFC) has been laid in only 38,386 gram panchayats as of end-January 2016.

In order to expedite the roll-out of BharatNet, the Telecom Commission has approved a revised strategy, which proposes a three-phase implementation of the project. The first phase envisages the provision of broadband connectivity to 100,000 gram panchayats by laying underground OFC lines by March 2017. In the second phase, connectivity will be provided to all 250,000 gram panchayats in the country by using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines (aerial fibre), radio and satellite media by 2018. The provision of aerial fibre is a new element in the BharatNet strategy and offers several advantages over terrestrial fibre networks, including lower costs, faster implementation, and easy maintenance and utilisation of the existing power infrastructure.

In the third phase, to be executed between 2018 and 2023, a state-of-the-art, future-proof network, comprising fibre between districts and blocks, with ring topology, will be created.

Further, the government has asked the states to follow the Andhra Pradesh model of project implementation. The latter has adopted an innovative approach for mapping electrical lines by using the resources of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the power department. As a result, the entire state-wide mapping was accomplished in a week and the state laid about 10,000 km of aerial OFC on electrical poles in three months.

Other states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have also come up with their own initiatives to improve digital infrastructure in rural areas. The Tamil Nadu government has launched a low-cost internet service, Arasu Fibre, as part of its initiative to provide internet services to every household in the state, particularly in the rural areas. The service will be provided by state-owned Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation Limited (TACTV). The various broadband plans will be priced between Rs 299 and Rs 899, at speeds ranging from 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. TACTV is also planning to set up an aerial optical fibre (AOF) network by leveraging the existing infrastructure of Tamil Nadu Transmission Corporation Limited and Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited. Through the AOF network, the government aims to deliver broadband connections to remote rural households (with speeds of 10-20 Mbps), all government offices, schools and businesses, and set up a central network operating centre in Chennai as well as a point of presence in each of the districts, talukas and block headquarters.

Meanwhile, Kerala has achieved the distinction of becoming the country’s first “digital state” to link all its villages through broadband. Apart from BharatNet, the state government’s own projects such as the Kerala State Data Centre and the Kerala State Wide Area Network have helped develop a robust digital infrastructure. Teledensity in the state has reached 95 per cent and more than 60 per cent of its population has access to the internet.

GyanSetu

The government launched the GyanSetu project in December 2015 with the aim of bridging the digital divide between rural and urban areas. GyanSetu is an internet-based real-time ICT platform designed by the Centre for Development of Telematics, which provides various e-services to the underprivileged population in rural India. It uses a simplified graphic user interface in order to help people overcome barriers such as low literacy levels and exposure to only local language so as to get connected to the internet. To this end, it features a touchscreen, embedded audio- and video-based multilingual support, and a simple numeric keypad. Moreover, it allows internet access through a remote device. It also extracts the necessary real-time information from third-party servers and enables location-based customisation.

Initially, highly visual e-services including railway reservation, online education, medical consultation and public grievances will be provided in the rural areas through GyanSetu.

North-eastern region projects

In September 2014, the Union cabinet approved a comprehensive telecom development plan for the Northeast with an estimated expenditure of Rs 53.36 billion, to be provided by the USO Fund. The project aims to provide 2G mobile connectivity to uncovered villages and national highways. It entails setting up about 6,673 towers, covering 8,621 of the 9,190 unconnected villages. In addition, it aims to set up 321 telecom towers on national highways.

A significant development towards improving internet connectivity in the Northeast took place in March 2016, with the commissioning of the country’s third internet gateway at Agartala, Tripura. With this, India will lease 10 GB of internet bandwidth from Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited’s internet port at Cox’s Bazar. This will be available from Akhaura in Bangladesh to Agartala.

LWE areas

In order to improve connectivity in areas affected by left-wing extremism, the government, in August 2014, had approved the installation of mobile towers in 2,199 locations across 10 states – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The project is being undertaken by BSNL at a total investment of around Rs 35.68 billion.

The project, which is expected to improve communication among security personnel as well as customers in the Naxal-affected regions, was intended to be completed by December 2015. However, it failed to meet its deadline, with only 932 towers being installed in the first phase between January 2015 and December 2015. Therefore, BSNL plans to install around 175 towers in the next phase of the project.

Conclusion

As of March 31, 2016, rural teledensity in the country stood at 51.37 per cent, much lower than the urban teledensity of 154.01 per cent. A large section of the rural population remains unserved. Therefore, there is an undeniable need to undertake rural-specific telecom infrastructure programmes. Although the aforementioned projects are steps in the right direction, their execution within the proposed timeline is imperative for ensuring significant benefits to rural customers.

 
 

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