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Digital Future: Progress under key government programmes

February 19, 2019

As India looks forward to making the 5G leap, achieving nationwide connectivity and digital literacy is of paramount importance. Bridging the technology gap between urban and rural India is imperative as the industry hopes to mobilise the next wave of users from rural India. Over the course of 2018, several large-scale government projects such as Digital India, BharatNet and the Smart Cities Mission crossed important milestones in achieving their respective objectives. These programmes are collectively aimed at creating a digitally unified country and delivering several government services online.

tele.net takes a look at the progress under key government programmes and the way forward…

Digital India

Digital India is a broad comprehensive vision of digitally transforming the country. It focuses on e-governance and the electronic delivery of services. The programme implementation is being coordinated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and calls for the engagement of multiple government ministries and departments. Recently, Digital India completed four years since its inception and its most remarkable progress has been enhanced internet access through affordable smartphones. In November 2018, India overtook the US to become the second largest smartphone market, next only to China.

E-governance, one of the nine pillars of the Digital India programme, has seen significant improvement over the past four years. As per the United Nations e-Governance Index, India climbed 22 positions to rank 96 in 2018 against 118 in 2014. There has also been a quantum leap in the number of e-governance transactions, from 9.64 million in 2014 to 86.8 million as of April 2018.

As part of Digital India, the government took a big step in reviving the Aadhaar unique identification programme. Although launched in 2010, Aadhaar was not adopted extensively in the initial years. Over the past few years, the government made Aadhaar mandatory for e-governance services and for direct benefit transfer (DBT) to the poor and needy. As a result, the number of registered Aadhaar users doubled from 610 million in 2014 to 1.21 billion in June 2018. Further, Aadhaar became a quick and easy way for online real-time verification of the identity of individuals, leading to reduced costs and processing times. The use of Aadhaar for DBT led to savings of $13.63 billion till April 2018, owing to the removal of fictitious beneficiaries. Aadhaar was also a contributing factor to the growth in mobile connections.

BharatNet

The government’s flagship BharatNet programme, earlier called National Optical Fibre Network, is aimed at providing broadband connectivity to the country’s 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) by connecting them with optic fibre cable (OFC). The first phase of the programme, which entailed connecting 100,000 GPs, was completed in December 2017. As per the latest figures, OFC has been laid in approximately 123,065 GPs, of which OFC has been connected and equipment installed in 116,729 GPs. A total of 307,802 km of OFC has been laid so far, a massive increase from the meagre 358 km in June 2014.

In addition, as on January 7, 2019, Wi-Fi has been deployed in 39,379 GPs, of which it is operational in 12,528 GPs. A total of 105,000 GPs have been earmarked for Wi-Fi installation. The number of users of this Wi-Fi network currently stands at 1.11 million.

Expanding connectivity to remote areas

In September 2018, the government approved the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the North-eastern Region (NER). As per the plan, an estimated expenditure of Rs 53.36 billion (inclusive of all taxes, except octroi and local taxes) will be incurred for expanding and improving connectivity in the region. The Universal Service Obligation [USO] Fund will help meet the capex and opex (net of revenue) needs for five years. The project envisages providing 2G connectivity to 8,621 unconnected villages through the deployment of 6,673 mobile towers. This will also ensure seamless connectivity to national highways through 321 mobile towers. The project also envisages increasing the reliability of district and state headquarters connectivity by providing alternative optic fibre connectivity.

In December 2018, the government cleared a proposal to provide high speed internet connectivity to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The move is aimed at bolstering critical infrastructure through an undersea optic fibre cable system from Chennai. The Chennai Andaman Nicobar Island (CANI) cable system will provide speeds of 100 GB per second and will augment connectivity in the region. The 2,199.66 km long submarine cable system will be laid on the seabed and will connect the mainland with the islands of Port Blair, Little Andaman (Hut Bay), Car Nicobar, Kamorta, Great Nicobar (Campbell Bay), Havelock, Long and Rangat. The project is expected to be implemented at a cost of Rs 712.8 million.

Smart cities

The Smart Cities Mission also witnessed some progress during the year. As per data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, all 100 cities had incorporated special purpose vehicles and 97 of them had procured project management consultants, as of December 2018. Further, all 100 of them had constituted city-level advisory forums.

A total of 5,151 projects, involving an estimated cost of Rs 2.05 trillion, have been proposed by various cities in their Smart City Proposals. As of November 30, 2018, 2,342 projects worth Rs 909.29 billion had been tendered, of which 1,675 projects worth Rs 518.66 billion are either under implementation or have been completed. Since the launch of the mission in June 2015, the government has allocated funds of Rs 166.04 billion, of which Rs 142.21 billion has already been released. As of November 1, 2018, approximately Rs 35.6 billion had been utilised by smart cities.

Over the past year, there has been significant growth in the number of projects tendered and completed under the mission. The number of projects tendered increased by 290 per cent while the number of projects completed grew by 332 per cent.

The way forward

While significant policies and proposals have been cleared to augment connectivity in the country, there still exists a large gap in terms of their implementation on the ground. In November 2018, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) censured top Bharat Broadband Network Limited and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) executives for the failure to operationalise the BharatNet network in village blocks and noted that the lack of professionalism had resulted in poor planning and coordination between the two public sector units.

The deployment of commercial broadband connections in GPs has languished severely. According to industry reports, of the total 250,000 GPs, less than 2.5 per cent have commercial broadband connections. Although the number of GPs with test connections is higher, these are free connections provided for six months only. Industry experts have also noted that while the infrastructure has been installed, there has been a lack of planning as to how internet connection will be made operational and distributed. A recent BSNL letter to DoT highlighted that OFC is getting damaged due to its lying idle. In such a scenario, connecting all 250,000 GPs by March 2019 seems like a tall target.

Other government projects have also been languishing, mainly on account of implementation delays. In March 2018, members of Parliament (MPs) from the Northeast raised concerns over implementation delays in network roll-outs. Their major concern was that despite having signed MoUs, no work had been done on the ground. The MPs further alleged that senior USO Fund officers were deliberately delaying the project. Another criticism of the government’s plan in the region is the choice of technology. At a time when 4G has become the industry standard, the decision to deploy 2G holds little ground. Also, in the case of installing mobile towers in Andaman & Nicobar, the deadline for the submission of bids has been extended 11 times, owing to the lack of interest from operators.

Clearly, the progress on the ground is somewhat different from what the numbers suggest. The government needs to acknowledge that sluggish implementation has severely impacted the achievement of project objectives. Going forward, the government will need to strictly monitor the implementation of these projects and work actively to eliminate procedural and implementation delays. It will also need to encourage the private sector to drive the commercial uptake of infrastructure laid under BharatNet, failing which the objective of a unified and connected India will remain out of reach.

By Aditya Kumar

 
 

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