Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, BBNL

In a major move, the government approved public-private partnerships (PPPs) for the implementation of the BharatNet project in 2021. The move is expected to provide a shot in the arm for the ambitious project, being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL). Further, it will pave the way for greater private sector participation in the project. In an interview with, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, BBNL, shares his views on the progress under the BharatNet project, the developments under the PPP mode, and the opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain. Excerpts…

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

The current broadband penetration in India is at around 55 per cent, and nearly 45 per cent of India’s population still does not have access to broadband. Most of the deficit is in rural India as is evident from the fact that despite comprising two-thirds of the country’s population, it has only 38 per cent of total broadband connections. The silver lining is that these 38 per cent rural broadband connections account for 45 per cent of the overall data usage in the country. This indicates hunger, demand and appetite for data in rural India.

About 97 per cent of the broadband delivered and consumed in the country is mobile broadband. Fixed broadband penetration in India is among the lowest in the world at only 1.69 per 100 inhabitants. Most of these connections are in ur­ban ar­eas, with rural areas accounting for less than 6 per cent of the total. By increasingly connecting gram panchayats (GPs)/villages in rural areas, BharatNet will bridge this digital divide in the times to come.

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

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 work front of 120,314 GPs, 118,941 GPs (98.9 per cent) have been made service ready by laying approximately 309,000 km of optical fibre cable (OFC), as of December 31, 2021.

Under Phase II, there are various mo­dels of implementation – state-led mo­del, central public sector undertaking (CPSU)-led model by Bharat Sanchar Ni­gam Limited (BSNL) and private-led model with direct supervision and control of BBNL. Against a work front of 143,862 GPs, the implementation is underway in around 1,00,000 GPs. The majority of the remaining GPs are to be connected th­rough the PPP model. In 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 in Phase II.

Combined, 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 (FTTH) con­n­ections to the GPs. Wi-Fi access points have been installed in over 100,000 GPs, of which it is active in 53,913 GPs.

How will the launch of the PPP mode prove beneficial for the project? What has been the progress under the PPP mode so far?

Under the PPP mode, the private sector partner (PSP) will be responsible for the creation of a new network, upgradation of the network, operations and maintenance (O&M) and utilisation of the entire network from block headquarters up to the village level for a period of 30 years (extendable by five years), along with 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.

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

BharatNet implementation faces many challenges on the execution front. The in­volvement of multiple agencies such as the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), BBNL and CPSUs/central/state agencies/contractors impacted decision making, eventually affecting implementation. The limited availability of experien­ced executing agencies/resources to simultaneously take up work throughout the country affected the project. The project required right-of-way (RoW) permissions to be taken from central departments such as defence, forests and the National High­ways Authority of India (NHAI), which in many cases were delayed and hampered progress. The change of government/ bureaucracy in some states affected continuity and led to delays in BharatNet Phase II under the state-led model. The implementation of BharatNet involves outdoor works which were affected due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns/restrictions in the past two years.

BharatNet Phase I has linear architecture with no redundancy. It uses old BSNL fibre in part of the network. Also, optical line terminals (OLTs) are installed in BSNL block-level exchange where power availability, battery back-up and air-conditioning are limiting factors.  Further, maintenance is in the hands of multiple agencies – common service centre (CSC), BSNL and BBNL with no/low service level agreement (SLA) commitments. All these factors result in poor network availability and uptime of the BharatNet network Phase I.

BharatNet Phase II is still at the execution stage. It is expected to have better uptime as BSNL fibre has not been used and OFC has been laid directly from the block to the GP. Also, five out of eight sta­tes under the state-led model have ad­opted ring topology which has impro­v­ed availability.  Further, O&M is an integral part of implementation contracts in Bharat­Net Phase II.

However, to improve O&M of the Phase I network, some measures that have been taken are replacement of BSNL’s lossy fibre, repair/replacement of large-sc­ale faults in incremental fibre, geographic information system mapping of assets for faster and accurate fault loca­lisation, arran­ging sufficient equipment spa­res to reduce downtime, shifting of optical network terminals from GP bha­wans to locations wh­ere power availability and security is ensu­red. Further, SLA-based integrated maintenance of the network is being planned.

BharatNet utilisation takes place by leasing of BharatNet network (bandwidth/dark fibre) to service providers. The dark fibre leasing is largely for the fiberisation of towers and is mainly constrained by poor uptime of network, which is a must for broadband connectivity.

Poor network uptime has not been the only constraint in utilisation. Affordability also limits the tariffs and revenue potential. Further, whatever demand exists could not be tapped as there is no agency av­ailable to give connection on demand. It is only now that internet service providers (ISPs) have come forward to provide the services under a revenue sharing arrangement with BBNL.

What are some of the opportunities that ind­ustry stakeholders (telcos, equipment provi­ders, ISPs, etc.) can look forward to under the BharatNet project?

BharatNet implementation is still un­der way in approximately 50,000 GPs ac­ross the country. Taking BharatNet beyo­nd the GPs up to the villages means laying an ad­di­tional 800,000 to 900,000 km of OFC. The implementation of upgradation and con­­nectivity work of GPs/villages in the current PPP tender involves laying approximately 1,100,000 km of OFC. The network will have gigabit passive optical network and internet protocol multiprotocol label switching equipment besides the OFC and accessories. The implementation mo­del for extending BharatNet connectivity to villages in states under the state-led model is still under consideration.

The utilisation of BharatNet will see a lot of emphasis in the times to come. More and more attractive rates/schemes are being worked out in consultation with service pro­viders. The recently launched revenue share arrangement with ISPs is a huge success with 50 ISPs having already signed the agreement in various blocks/districts/ states and at the all-India level too.

The SLA-based tender for integrated maintenance of BharatNet is being plan­ned countrywide. Not only will it provide a big boost for FTTH/Wi-Fi services in rural areas, it will also increase leasing of dark fibre by telecom service providers for fiberisation of towers.

What are the key targets that BBNL plans to achieve during 2022?

The main focus in 2022 will be on the utilisation of BharatNet. Agreements have been reached with ISPs to provide FTTH connections in revenue sharing mode. BharatNet will also be used to proliferate Wi-Fi access points in rural areas under the PM-WANI scheme. Ongoing GP connectivity works under BharatNet will be substantially completed in 2022. It is targeted to connect 205,000 GPs (cumulative) by laying approximately 650,000 km (cumulative) of OFC. The likely leftovers will be the GPs covered under the existing PPP tender of BharatNet Phase II works in Uttara­khand, Jammu & Kashmir, and Goa for which detailed project reports/ agencies are yet to be decided. Further, the completion of work in two out of four packages in Tamil Nadu will be subject to the outcome of litigation.