Industry optimism around the fast-tracked pace of the BharatNet project took a serious beating after the government failed to conclude Phase I on March 31, 2017. As of March 2017, about 80,000 gram panchayats have been connected under the project as against the targeted 100,000 gram panchayats. While the government hopes to reach this figure by end-April 2017, 20,000 gram panchayats is not a small number to be achieved within a month.
Clearly, this is not the first time that the telecom sector’s most ambitious project has met such a fate. It has undergone several timeline revisions and even a major overhaul in scope since its inception in 2011.
That said, the pace of development during 2016 was much sharper than before. The speed of laying ducts and fibre under Phase I increased eightfold, from 50 km a day in 2015 to 400-500 km a day in 2016. Several issues in implementation, mainly around equipment supply, were also resolved.
Among the states, Kerala, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have achieved nearly 100 per cent infrastructure roll-out. However, a bigger concern is the availability of active broadband connectivity riding on this infrastructure. The actual gains from the project will only be realised once users in the hinterland get to experience high-speed connectivity and its associated benefits.
BharatNet has the potential to bridge the digital rural-urban divide by broadband enabling the rural population. Key services like tele-education and tele-medicine will ride on these networks, ushering in both economic and social benefits for the country.
In such a scenario, the government’s proposal to bring in private sector participation in the remaining phases can make a marked difference. Under the public-private partnership model, the infrastructure, once laid out, can be bid out to private operators and service providers. This will help the government overcome issues related to cost overruns, delayed implementation and low quality of work.
Net, net, useful lessons can be drawn from the implementation experience of Phase I and ways found to avoid such delays in Phase II, which is planned to be completed by March 2018. Active private sector participation, new implementation models like aerial fibre and Wi-Fi in the last mile as well as a generous budget of Rs 100 billion may help expedite the process for Phase II.