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Government Impetus: Progress on key initiatives to expand telecom reach

March 31, 2017

With over 1 billion subscribers, India is now home to the world’s second largest telecom user base. Ironically, there still exist several rural pockets in the country where telecom services are yet to make inroads. While the growth in telecom services across urban areas has been phenomenal, the rural and remote corners of the country have been left out owing to poor infrastructure development. The north-eastern region particularly, has always been a laggard in terms of telecom connectivity. Fraught with challenges like limited access to power, frequent landslides and insurgency-related activity, this region has not attracted significant interest from private players. Frequent service disruptions and delays in carrying out the operations and maintenance essential for telecom services have weakened the business case for telecom infrastructure deployment in these areas.

In such a scenario, the role of the government becomes paramount to prevent a widening of the urban-rural digital divide. The government, on its part, has been making significant efforts to bring several unconnected villages into the connectivity net. The Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund was established with the objective of offering financial support for service roll-outs in the country’s hinterland. Over the years, the USO Fund has supported various schemes in the Northeast and left wing extremist (LWE) areas to improve telecom connectivity. State-run operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), along with central public sector units (CPSUs) like RailTel and Powertel, have been at the forefront of implementing these schemes.

While most of the schemes have focused on establishing the basic infrastructure, such as towers and optical fibre cables (OFC), in rural and remote areas, the BharatNet programme envisages bringing high speed broadband connectivity to the village level through fibre infrastructure. The project, which is claimed to be the building block for achieving the government’s Digital India vision, is expected to change the broadband landscape of the country in the coming years.

To this end, regular monitoring of the physical progress of government projects is important. Also, timely and adequate disbursement of finances from the USO Fund is crucial. According to USO Fund data, a total of Rs 336.6 billion has been allocated, while the total collection stands at Rs 808.24 billion.

tele.net takes stock of various government initiatives to improve connectivity in rural and remote areas, and the progress made in the past year…

Update on BharatNet

The BharatNet project is aimed at connecting all 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country for providing broadband connectivity through OFC. Non-discriminatory access to the network will be provided to all telecom service providers including mobile operators, internet service providers, cable TV operators and content providers. Further, various applications for e-health, e-education and e-governance will be provided through this network. The project was approved by the cabinet in October 2011 but faced several delays on account of various implementation issues.

After this slow and disturbed start, the project finally gained pace during 2016. It is being implemented in three phases. Phase I, which is currently under implementation, aims to connect 100,000 GPs. This is being executed by three CPSUs: BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid). Under Phase II, the remaining GPs will be covered, using a mix of underground/aerial OFC, radio and satellite media. This will be executed by three CPSUs, along with the state governments and private agencies. This phase is targeted to be completed by December 2018.

Meanwhile, Phase III will work towards making the BharatNet network future-ready. This will include deploying a futuristic network with ring topology between districts and blocks and blocks and GPs. It is targeted to be completed by 2023.

As per Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), ducting and trenching is in progress in more than 84,000 GPs, while cabling has been completed in around 77,000 GPs. Up till now, 200,000 km of OFC has been laid against the requirement of 225,000 km during Phase I.

In Phase II, aerial fibre will be deployed over existing electricity poles in areas where laying underground fibre is not feasible, such as in hilly regions. In areas where laying of both underground and aerial fibre is found to be unfeasible, the use of radio and satellites will be explored. According to a study by IIT Bombay, there are around 30,000 GPs in the country that could be connected optimally through radio and around 2,000 through satellites.

Progress in the Northeast

The region has received renewed interest from the government, with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) terming 2017 the year of focus on northeast India. In fact, the department has close to Rs 55 billion of investments lined up for 2017 and 2018 to improve connectivity in the region.

The government has decided to install around 6,000 towers across the region under the comprehensive telecom development plan for the Northeast. It had given approval to undertake comprehensive telecom development for the north-eastern region in September 2014. The project envisages the provision of mobile coverage to 8,621 identified uncovered villages, the installation of 321 mobile tower sites along national highways and the strengthening of the transmission network in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. The project is funded by the USO Fund and the estimated cost of implementation is Rs 53.36 billion. The project is targeted to be completed by September 2018.

The responsibility of the project in tough terrains such as Arunanchal Pradesh, and Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong in Assam has been allotted to BSNL. The operator has to install about 2,100 mobile towers in these regions. It plans to start rolling out the project by July 2017. Meanwhile, the installation of the rest of the telecom towers is to be done by private telecom operators.

The government has also launched various schemes under the aegis of the USO Fund for the roll-out of fibre in the north-eastern areas. Two schemes, OFC NE I and OFC NE II, were launched in 2012. While the first scheme was rolled out in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland were taken up for OFC augmentation in the second scheme. RailTel emerged as the successful bidder for both the schemes and was tasked with commissioning 188 nodes across 23 districts under Scheme I and 407 nodes across 36 districts under Scheme II. The USO Fund has extended a subsidy of Rs 895 million and Rs 2.98 billion for the two schemes to RailTel.

Despite the financial aid, RailTel has faced several challenges in fibre installation owing to the difficult terrain. Hence, the roll-out period has been extended under both the schemes. As per the latest data available with the USO Fund, work has been awarded for trenching/laying in all the 23 districts under OFC NE I. Around 1,808 km of ducts (of the targeted 2,274 km) and 1,384 km of OFC (of the targeted 2,574 km) have been laid, and 123 nodes have been connected on OFC, of which 101 nodes have been commissioned. Meanwhile, under OFC NE II, work has been awarded for trenching/laying in 34 districts (of the targeted 36 districts), 3,145 km of ducts (of 6,746 km) and 1,849 km of OFC (of 7,806 km) have been laid, and 66 nodes have been connected on OFC, of which 38 nodes have been commissioned.

Projects in LWE areas

In August 2014, the cabinet approved a project implementation cost of Rs 35.67 billion consisting of capex and opex for rolling out 1,836 sites, and opex of the existing 363 towers for five years in LWE areas in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. BSNL was tasked with carrying out the project and was given ownership of the assets created under the project. BSNL, in turn, awarded the work to the successful bidders – Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL) and Hindustan Futuristic Communications Limited. As of December 2016, all the sites were live. Further, these towers are powered by solar energy, making this the world’s largest green mobile network. Gurgaon-based VNL is the principal partner, which has installed 1,315 sites, while HFCL has deployed 521 solar-powered mobile towers. The government is now expected to grant assent to the roll-out of another 2,726 solar-powered mobile towers in the Naxal-hit areas.

Recently, in December 2016, the government approved a proposal to provide 156 mobile towers in LWE-affected areas, with subsidy support of up to Rs 2.75 billion from the USO Fund. These will be rolled out and commissioned by June 2017.

 
 

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