The Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund was established in 2002 with the objective of providing connectivity in inaccessible, remote and rural areas, where the services have not reached. In order to achieve these objectives, the fund has been implementing an array of projects, the key among them being the BharatNet initiative. In an interview with, Sanjay Singh, administrator, USO Fund, talks about the progress made under the BharatNet project during 2016, the major challenges faced in its execution, the implementation strategy for the project’s second phase and the key focus areas…

What is the current size of the USO Fund? What is the project portfolio?

This year the USO Fund has received an allocation of Rs 76 billion from the government. The unutilised corpus is around Rs 450 billion. There are diversified projects in the USO Fund portfolio. Bharat­Net is the key initiative. The other projects being implemented by the USO Fund are telecom towers for mobile coverage in the left wing extremism-affected regions, a Com­pre­­hensive Telecom Deve­­­lop­­ment Project for North East Region, and a Compre­hen­sive Telecom Develop­ment Project for Andaman and Nicobar Island and Laksha­dweep islands.  For the island project, submarine cable connectivity from the mainland to the islands is being taken up.

What was the progress made under the BharatNet project during 2016?

The BharatNet project is being implemented by three central public sector un­der­­takings (CPSUs), Bharat Sanchar Ni­gam Limited (BSNL), Power Grid Cor­poration of India Limited and RailTel Cor­­poration of India Limited (RailTel), and is managed by Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL).

The first phase of the project aims to cover 1,00,000 gram panchayats (GPs) and is targeted to be completed by March 2017. The progress till now is that ducting and trenching has been completed in around  85,000 GPs, and cabling has been completed in around 76,000 GPs.

The issues faced during the implementation of the project have been resolved and the pace of work has picked up. The daily speed of trenching and ducting, and cable laying has been around 500 km.

How will the second phase of the BharatNet project be different from the first phase?

The second phase of the BharatNet project is proposed to be significantly different from the first phase in terms of its implementation strategy and the media to be used.

In addition, several new provisions have been made under the second phase such as the addition of the last mile connectivity architecture at the GP level. In Phase II, along with CPSUs, state government and private sector agencies are also proposed to be involved in the implementation. The increase in the number of im­plementing agencies is expected to expedite the pace of work.

Further, the first phase involved the laying of underground optical fibre cables (OFC) only. In the second phase, aerial fibre will also be deployed over the existing electricity poles. The states, therefore, are conducting GIS mapping of the existing electricity lines. Along with OFC, the use of radio technology and connectivity using satellite to connect GPs is also proposed in Phase II.

According to the Media Plan prepared by IIT Bombay, 30,000 GPs  have been identified that will be connected through radio technology and around 2000 GPs are proposed to be connected through sate­­llite connectivity.

How will the involvement of state governments benefit the BharatNet project?

The involvement of states has been proposed for the implementation of Phase II. Since certain states have their models for the delivery of service in place, it is belie­ved that the project implementation would benefit with state involvement.

What will be the overall impact of the Bharat­Net project?

The real gains from the BharatNet project will be realised once it is used by citizens, the government, institutions and the private sector enterprises. Under the second phase, the provision for horizontal connectivity at GP level institutions such as primary health centres, schools, panchayats, anganwadis and police stations is also being considered.

What steps are being taken to improve the last mile connectivity under the BharatNet project?

Wi-Fi networks for last mile connectivity under the BharatNet project have been included in Phase II. Pilot tests are being carried out by BSNL and RailTel, as well as IIT Bombay. CSC’s Wi-Fi Choupal model is also being deployed. Moreover, BSNL is setting up Wi-Fi hotspots at its 25,000 rural telephone exchanges by using the USO fund.

What will be the key focus areas for the USO Fund?

The priority of the USO Fund is defined in the rules, which provide that connectivity in inaccessible, remote and rural areas is to be provided using the USO Fund. Towards this, BharatNet is the most important project being implemented by USO Fund through BBNL.