There are multiple factors driving the demand for a robust fibre network across the country. For one, data usage is growing at a rapid pace, creating a critical need for fiberised backhaul. The 5G era will create enormous demand for a fiberised backbone. Further, fibre-intensive networks will be crucial for supporting the deployment of cutting-edge technologies and solutions like internet of things, machine-to-machine, artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, Industry 4.0, sensors and autonomous vehicles. Moreover, optical fibre cable (OFC)-based networks are critical for the delivery of high quality and content-rich home broadband services.
Today, utility- and content-based applications such as streaming videos, music, chats, gaming, news and e-governance have become the key drivers of data traffic. They require OFC connectivity for functioning. In this scenario, fibre-focused initiatives have taken centre stage.
A look at the progress under the BharatNet scheme and various other initiatives taken by the state governments…
Progress on the BharatNet project
The BharatNet project aims to bridge the rural-urban digital divide by enhancing connectivity across villages. The BharatNet project is being implemented in a phased manner. In Phase I, the target was to connect 100,000 GPs, which was achieved in December 2017. Against the present revised target of 120,314 GPs, 118,941 GPs (98.9 per cent) have been made service-ready by laying approximately 309,000 km of OFC, as of December 31, 2021.
Under Phase II, there are various models of implementation – state-led model, central public sector undertaking-led model by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and private-led model with direct supervision and control of Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL). As against a target of 143,862 GPs, implementation is under way in around 100,000 GPs. The majority of the remaining GPs are to be connected through the public-private partnership (PPP) model. Under BharatNet Phase II, 46,026 GPs have been made service-ready by laying approximately 252,000 km of OFC, as of December 31, 2021. Further, 4,277 GPs have been connected through satellite, totalling 50,303 service-ready GPs under Phase II.
A total of 169,244 GPs (173,030 including block headquarters) have been made service-ready under BharatNet by laying approximately 561,000 km of OFC as of December 31, 2021.
On the utilisation front, more than 4,000 Gbps of BharatNet bandwidth and 38,000 km of dark fibre have been taken on lease by service providers to offer 190,000 fibre-to-the-home connections to the GPs. Wi-Fi access points have been installed in over 100,000 GPs, of which they are active in 53,913 GPs.
Among states, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of GPs with Wi-Fi infrastructure in place, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh also accounts for the highest number of active users, approximately 0.8 million. However, the average data consumption per active user lies well below the national average of 1.18 GB. Chhattisgarh, on the other hand, has 3,664 service-ready GPs, of which 3,662 have operational Wi-Fi hotspots. Further, 96 per cent of service-ready GPs in Punjab provide operational Wi-Fi services, with the average data consumption crossing 10 GB. Karnataka, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Chandigarh and Kerala are some of the states/UTs where over 50 per cent of the service-ready GPs have operational Wi-Fi services. Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands do not have a single GP equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots.
In a major move, the government approved PPPs in 2021 for the implementation of the BharatNet project. The move is expected to provide a shot in the arm for the ambitious project being implemented by BBNL. Further, it will pave the way for greater private sector participation in the project. Under the PPP mode, the private sector partner will be responsible for the creation of a new network, upgradation of the network, operations and maintenance and utilisation of the entire network from block headquarters up to the village level for a period of 30 years (extendable by five years). It will also get the right to use the existing BharatNet infrastructure. It is expected that the private player will roll out the network fast, maintain and utilise it to optimal levels and help BharatNet achieve its ultimate objective of providing broadband access to rural India.
The state governments have been pushing the pedal on expanding their fibre coverage. In April 2022, the Goa government announced that the fibre-to-the-home project to provide internet connectivity to each household in Goa will recommence soon. Meanwhile, HFCL announced the successful completion of OFC roll-out in the state of Jharkhand under the BharatNet project. HFCL has completed connectivity of 1,789 GPs through the GPON network, wherein 7,765 km of the OFC network has been laid out, thereby providing broadband connectivity to all the GPs of Jharkhand. Meanwhile, HFCL has completed broadband connectivity by deploying 7,869 km of the OFC network, connecting 3,209 GPs with the GPON network in Punjab. Apart from deploying networks in Punjab and Jharkhand, HFCL is supplying OFC in Maharashtra, Telangana and Chhattisgarh under the BharatNet project.
Prior to this, in September 2021, the Telangana government had requested the central government to hand over Phase I of the BharatNet network to T-Fiber. Additionally, the state government had urged Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister for telecommunications and electronics and information technology, to allocate Rs 12 billion for the BharatNet Phase II project. The Telangana government requested that payments be released in accordance with the initial MoU signed with the Department of Telecommunications, Universal Service Obligation Fund and BBNL for implementation of the BharatNet Phase II project by T-Fiber.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Fibrenet Corporation (TANFINET) is executing the BharatNet project in the state. Under the project, 12,525 GPs are planned to be provided with 1 Gbps connectivity through an optical fibre network. TANFINET is a special purpose vehicle created exclusively for implementing the project. The government has all the clearances in place, and is now in the process of signing contract agreements with the vendors.
The state government had also initiated the Tamil Nadu State Wide Area Network project. Through this project, the government seeks to provide a reliable and secure backbone network for the interconnection of all administrative establishments of the state government up to the block level, provide network infrastructure for accessing the various e-governance applications at the state data centre; facilitate information sharing among various government departments for the prompt delivery of government services; provide voice connectivity to all offices connected on the network for faster communication, etc.
Further, the government has decided to utilise the existing and proposed fibre networks of TANTRANSCO and TANFINET to build the network for TamilNet. This project will be integrated with the BharatNet project to establish a unified digital infrastructure, which will connect the state headquarters, district headquarters, blocks, GPs and villages. The goal will be to create synergies and force a multiplier effect of data flow, content flow, access-to-market and access-to-information.
The Kerala government launched the Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON) with the aim to bridge the digital divide by providing high speed, affordable internet connectivity to every household in the state. KFON is a joint venture of Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited and the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). Earlier, in March 2019, a consortium led by Bharat Electronics Limited was selected to implement the project. The project will leverage the infrastructure of KSEB by establishing a core ring. Further, as part of this project, a network operating centre will be set up at Ernakulam.
The way forward
The expansion of OFC networks offers several opportunities to stakeholders in the ecosystem. Further, the fibre deployed by BSNL and BBNL can be used to fiberise towers in rural and semi-urban areas. Dark fibre leased by other service providers can also be used to fiberise towers. In order to expedite fibre deployment, fibre sharing and fibre monetisation models can also be explored. In addition, a huge untapped opportunity lies in meeting the NDCP targets for fibre-to-the-tower, fibre-to-the-household and fibre-to-the-GP.