Sarvesh Singh, Chairman and Managing Director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited

The BharatNet project, being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), aims to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats in India with high speed fibre infrastructure. The project is considered a game changer for the rural broadband ecosystem and once fully implemented, will be instrumental in bridging the country’s digital divide. The project is being undertaken in two phases. Phase I is already complete while Phase II is currently under implementation. The Phase I project execution was fraught with several challenges, which served as key lessons for Phase II. To overcome some of these issues, the government decided to modify the implementation strategy for Phase II by assigning a bigger role to the states in order to expedite fibre roll-out. However, progress has been rather slow on this front too, with the Covid-19 pandemic throwing a spanner in the works. The government is now planning to increase the role of the private sector in the project to enhance the reach, scope and utilisation of this critical infrastructure. In an interview with, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, BBNL, shares his views on the progress of the BharatNet project, the targets and implementation strategies, and the opportunities for various stakeholders across the telecom value chain. Excerpts…

How has been the progress under BharatNet so far? What is the current status of network roll-out and utilisation?

In Phase I of the project, the target was to connect 100,000 gram panchayats. We were able to achieve this target in December 2017. Meanwhile, in July 2017, the work front of Phase I was increased to 125,000 gram panchayats. Under the revised Phase I, about 306,000 km of fibre has been laid to connect approximately 124,000 gram panchayats, including block headquarters (BHQs). Of these, more than 121,000 gram panchayats (including BHQs) are service ready. The remaining approximately 125,000 gram panchayats are planned to be connected under Phase II. In Phase II, more than 189,000 km of optic fibre cable (OFC) has been laid, to connect approximately 41,000 gram panchayats, including BHQs, on OFC. Of these, more than 27,000 gram panchayats, including BHQs, are service-ready. More than 3,300 further gram panchayats have been connected on satellite, taking the total service-ready gram panchayats under Phase II to over 31,104.

Overall, more than 490,000 km of OFC has been laid and 152,000 gram panchayats, including BHQs (approximately 58 per cent of the total network) have been made service-ready.

BharatNet infrastructure (bandwidth/ dark fibre) is provided on lease to service providers for extending high speed broadband to rural citizens and institutions. The common services centre special purpose vehicle (CSC SPV), Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), and other internet service providers (ISPs) have together provisioned more than 485,000 fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections (of which approximately 250,000 connections are active), using BharatNet infrastructure. About 270,000 government institutions in rural areas, namely, gram panchayats, schools, anganwadis, ration shops, health and wellness centres, post offices, etc., have already been connected through BharatNet. Similarly, Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in 105,000 gram panchayats, and services are active in 64,296 of these.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted project implementation?

BharatNet project implementation is only 58 per cent complete at present. The physical work of trenching/laying of OFC, supply (transportation), installation, testing and commissioning, maintenance of equipment, etc. was affected by the lockdown and the restrictions on movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although we have been trying to make up for the lost time, the achievement in the current financial year may still fall short of the year preceding it.

What are some of the execution- and utilisation-related challenges that the project faces? What steps is BBNL taking in order to address these?

BharatNet is a mega project, widely dispersed to the remotest corners of the country. Among the various challenges faced in execution are:

  • Maintaining coordination among multiple stakeholders including central public sector units, state governments, state implementation agencies, project implementation agencies and suppliers
  • Working in remote and difficult terrain, especially hilly areas, rocky terrain and left-wing extremism-affected regions
  • Limited availability of experienced executing agencies/resources to simultaneously take up work throughout the country
  • Delays in right-of-way permissions, especially for forest areas and highways
  • Unavailability of suitable government buildings or custodians for equipment installation in gram panchayats
  • Change of government/bureaucracy in states, affecting continuity
  • BSNL’s stressed financials, affecting progress.

The biggest challenge in utilisation is poor network availability and uptime, which affects the delivery of services at industry-level standards. The network has also seen large-scale damage due to road widening and other infrastructure development works being carried out by central/state agencies. The equipment at the gram panchayats is often kept in debilitated buildings with no or inadequate power supply and without a custodian, which affects the upkeep of the equipment. Keeping enough resources to protect and maintain the network in rural, remote areas is always a challenge.

The execution, operations and maintenance, and utilisation of BharatNet are coordinated and supervised very closely by BBNL, a PSU under the Department of Telecommunications. To improve maintenance and network availability, the work of maintenance of incremental fibre and first-line maintenance (FLM) of gigabit passive optical network (GPON) equipment in gram panchayats has been entrusted to the CSC SPV, which has a presence in the last mile through a network of village-level entrepreneurs. Further, the government is providing funds for the provisioning of Wi-Fi access points and FTTH connections to government institutions in the gram panchayats. In order to ensure synergy between maintenance and utilisation, a large part of providing last-mile connectivity under BharatNet Phase I has been entrusted to the CSC SPV for implementation.

How will the public-private partnership (PPP) mode be beneficial for the project? What are your plans in this regard?

To resolve various challenges in execution and utilisation, BharatNet is planned to go the PPP way in select states/circles. This is the first time that private service partners are being roped in for the creation, upgradation, maintenance and utilisation of BharatNet on a long-term basis, 25-30 years. At present, the tender documents are under finalisation and approval at the ministry. Once approved, the tender(s) for the work will be floated by BBNL. The final outcome of the PPP is yet to be seen, but keen interest has been shown by private players.

What are your views on the demand and appetite for broadband services in rural areas? Besides massive fibre infrastructure, what other components will be important to meet the growing demand?

With the increasing use of online delivery of government services, e-health, e-education, social media, entertainment, etc., it is expected that the demand for broadband services in rural areas will increase manyfold in the times to come. BharatNet, using OFC (largely), can provide the bandwidth required for the delivery of these services. The demand, however, has to be met with services delivered to the customer’s satisfaction. This would become possible only when we are able to maintain the BharatNet network at industry-level standards. Simultaneously, we have to come up with the right business models for utilisation so that broadband can be provided at a price that rural folks can afford without affecting the profitability of service providers.

What are the key targets that BBNL plans to achieve during 2021?

BharatNet is about social inclusion and reducing the digital divide by extending broadband to rural India. In spite of various government initiatives, the commissioned network could not be optimally utilised for providing the expected services to rural citizens and institutions. Therefore, maintenance and utilisation of the network will be central to our plans and policy in 2021. Also, taking forward the connectivity work, the plan is to make close to 200,000 gram panchayats service-ready by March 2022.

What are some of the opportunities that industry stakeholders can look forward to under the BharatNet project?

At present, a large number of mobile towers in rural areas are on radio backhaul. The BharatNet bandwidth/dark fibre is available for all telecom service providers and ISPs for utilisation and conversion of their radio backhaul into high-bandwidth OFC backhaul. If this is done, good data speeds may be available from the 4G towers installed for rural mobile users. Existing as well as new ISPs, IPTV providers, and other service providers can also use BharatNet bandwidth for providing various types of digital services such as high speed internet, IPTV and gaming.

Further, there are good prospects for service providers to participate in the PPP tender to be issued shortly by BBNL for the creation, upgradation, operations and maintenance, and utilisation of BharatNet on a long-term basis, for which viability gap funding will be provided by the government.