At present, several elements of digital infrastructure are available in the country in silos and with fragmented ownership models. The government’s ambitious BharatNet project aims to bridge only the middle-mile gap. Due to delayed implementation and limited network reach, stakeholders are not able to exploit it to its full potential to deliver services to end users in a cost-effective, timely and affordable manner. The creation of a digital infrastructure grid or a National Knowledge Transport Grid (NKTG), called Gyan Vahini, will help reduce the dependence on a single-owner asset and will make traffic switching between the available infrastructure easier, resulting in optimal utilisation of critical resources. Currently, India has about 2.1 million km of optical fibre cable (OFC), around 520,000 radio towers and around 400,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. All these are the ideal ingredients for the creation of a nationwide digital infrastructure grid, by using functional separation, blockchain cooperative concepts and funding through the National Digital Infrastructure Finance Corporation, infrastructure investment trusts and crowdsourcing.
The convergence of IT, telecom and broadcasting has resulted in the carriage of a variety of services over a common network. This calls for a functional and structural separation between the network layers and services, to separate service provision from the underlying infrastructure through regulatory facilitation.
Use of blockchain concepts
Blockchain, which is an open, trusted, distributed ledger technology for records of assets of any type, could be exploited for the implementation and creation of the NKTG. A blockchain-based decentralised commercial framework for Blockchain Cooperative can be established. This is an open access architecture and makes use of smart contracts.
Case for IRU
Indefeasible right to use (IRU) is a contractual grant of usage rights to the user by the owner for an exclusive, unrestricted, irrevocable and lifelong right to use the relevant facility. A common concept in the submarine cable industry, IRU is granted by the company/consortium of companies that builds a capital-intensive OFC network. IRUs facilitate the sharing of expenditure by offering excess capacity to another service provider and sometimes swapping network capacities as well.
The NKTG will comprise a consortium of all such stakeholders that want to unlock the potential of their existing infrastructure. Infrastructure resource sharing will basically be related to the optical fibre assets, which will be shared on the basis of spare capacity. All stakeholders will be allowed to use the allocated parts of the network infrastructure as per their stake in the consortium entity. All telecom service providers/ ISPs will be allowed to participate in the consortium by contributing all or part of their optical fibre infrastructure to the grid.
The way forward
The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 envisages the creation of the Digital Infrastructure Grid by 2020. For the foundation of such a common infrastructure, an innovative strategy needs to be prepared. Gyan Vahini or the NKTG initiative could be a guiding factor for this. The government also aims to establish a National Fibre Authority (NFA) for which the Ministry of Communications needs to initiate urgent steps. The NFA, which is slated to be the main entity to drive, create and supervise the National Fibre Grid, should be created as a joint government and industry body special purpose vehicle (SPV), with participation from all stakeholders.
Satya N. Gupta, Secretary General, ITU-APT Foundation of India