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Interview with N. Sivasailam, Additional Secretary, Department of Telecommunications

June 13, 2017
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The BharatNet project, which is being funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund, is aimed at providing high speed broadband connectivity in the country through optic fibre cable (OFC) and is a key component of the government’s Digital India initiative. However, significant cost revisions, delays in procuring clearances and equipment, and slow disbursement of funds have led to a sluggish roll-out of the project. In order to expedite implementation, the Telecom Commission, in April 2016, approved a revised strategy, proposing a three-phase implementation of the project. As a result, the project roll-out is finally picking up pace. In an interview with tele.net, N. Sivasailam, additional secretary, Department of Telecommunications, talks about the progress made under the BharatNet project, the major challenges faced in its execution and the implementation strategy for the project’s second phase...

What is the current status of the BharatNet project?

The BharatNet project aims to provide fibre connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs). As of now, 18,000-20,000 GPs have been lit under the project. In the next four to six months, connectivity will be provided to around 90,000 GPs. The second phase of the project, which aims to cover 150,000 GPs, is also going to start soon. We had earlier faced several issues with regard to the procurement of equipment and the tendering process, which have now been resolved. The project is expected to be completed by end-2018.

How will the second phase of the project be different from the first phase in terms of implementation models, technology, etc.?

The key objectives of the BharatNet project are to lay fibre and provide connectivity. While under Phase I, central public sector units were tasked with developing this network, in the second phase, we plan to bring more government-run implementation agencies on board. For instance, in several states where we have local resources, we plan to utilise their expertise to lay fibre during Phase II. We are also exploring new models for laying fibre to expedite the works under Phase II. While the first phase involved the laying of underground OFC only, in the second phase, the use of aerial fibre, radio technology and satellites has also been proposed. We may consider other delivery technologies such as satellite and radio. It may be noted that the end-users are not interested in the mode through which broadband service gets delivered to them. They are only interested in accessing the content affordably and quickly.

We are also contemplating a third phase for BharatNet, to be executed between 2018 and 2023, wherein a state-of-the-art, future-proof network with ring topology, comprising fibre between districts and blocks, will be created.

What role do you envisage for the private sector in the BharatNet project?

The creation of infrastructure does not generate business opportunities per se. These opportunities are generated only through service provisioning, that is, once the services start flowing through this network and reach the end-users. It is in the service provisioning space that we envisage a big role for the private sector. The private sector can offer services such as connectivity extension, content development, and provision of common service centres and kiosks. Moreover, there are opportunities for local start-ups, which can provide these services at the GP level and beyond.

What is the progress on connectivity projects in the Northeast?

In the Northeast, the capacity of satellite communication networks will be expanded to 100 Mbps at the district level and to 20 Mbps at the block level. This will help meet the network requirements of the goods and services tax network. Moreover, this will help in performing banking transactions securely.

What are the various implementation issues being faced under the BharatNet project?

There are no regulatory issues in the project’s implementation. However, there are project management issues such as those related to tendering and managing of contracts. Several vendors are involved in the execution of the project in every state. The different activities that are involved under BharatNet include digging, trenching, laying of OFC, pulling of fibre, blowing, connecting and verification. Besides, all these activities have to be performed in a particular order such that no one activity can be undertaken before the other is completed. In addition, all these activities have to be executed at each GP and would, therefore, be repeated 250,000 times.

How can telecom operators leverage the infrastructure created under BharatNet?

BharatNet is an open network and telecom operators, too, are entitled to leverage it. Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) is already doing that and we are open to working with other private operators as well. We can only provide the infrastructure; the onus of bringing relevant services to users lies with the operators and other stakeholders.

What role can satellite communications play in enhancing broadband connectivity?

Satellite communications can be explored as a potential means of providing broadband connectivity in terms of operations, maintenance, reliability, etc. There may be scenarios where satellite-based broadband could be better than terrestrial broadband. This form of broadband also presents many employment and content-development opportunities. The larger the area for coverage, the greater will be the use of satellite-based bandwidth.

Further, satellite communications can be used in the field of education. For instance, the Karnataka government and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore have developed a satellite-based education platform, involving about 1,000 schools. However, at present, satellite connectivity is provided in areas where it is not possible to provide connectivity through other wireless or wireline means. It is difficult to bring all industry stakeholders together to work on satellite-based projects because this would require a feasible business proposal in terms of pricing. The industry needs to address the issue of high pricing of satellite-based bandwidth in order to deploy satellite-based broadband services. To this end, a predatory pricing strategy can be launched initially and suitable pricing methods can be devised after that. Furthermore, the industry focus has to shift beyond just the locations and positions of satellites.

What are your views on the prevailing competitive landscape in the Indian market?

Following the launch of RJIL’s services, there has been a decline in the government’s revenues on account of lower licence fee and spectrum usage charges paid by operators. However, this should not be the government’s concern because competitive tariffs mean additional income for consumers, which, in turn, will help improve the overall economy.

Going forward, with the increased capacity requirements, do you think a similar kind of BharatNet project will have to be rolled out in urban areas as well?

The government undertakes connectivity projects only in underserved areas. However, if there is a business case for such a project in urban areas, the private sector will surely take this up. The major challenges in urban areas are laying fibre and obtaining right of way for the same.

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