Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, BBNL

BharatNet has been launched with the objective of reducing the digital divide between rural and urban India. The project envisages the development of infrastructure that will enable services such as e-governance, e-education, telemedicine and banking to reach the rural population. It is expected that affordable broadband will unleash a plethora of opportunities for rural India. At’s recent conference on “OFC Networks in India”, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), spoke about the progress on the project so far, the key challenges and future plans. Edited excerpts…

The BharatNet project being implemented by BBNL aims to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) in India with high speed fibre infrastructure. The project is now proposed to be extended beyond the GPs to cover all inhabited villages as well. The infrastructure that is created is being made available to service providers, who can use it to provide broadband services to the rural masses and institutions.

In Phase I of the project, the target was to connect 100,000 GPs. Phase I was completed in December 2017 and was executed by three central public sector undertakings (CPSUs) – Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited and RailTel. In July 2017, the work front of Phase I was increased to 125,000 GPs. Phase I has been largely completed, with a major shortfall in the Northeast where less than 30 per cent work could be completed and hence the decision has now been taken to undertake the work through public-private partnership (PPP). Other than the Northeast, the work is largely complete, with some left over in West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Jharkhand and a few other states. Under the revised Phase I, about 3.07 lakh  km of fibre has been laid so far.

In Phases I and II combined, almost 5.16 lakh km of fibre has been laid and more than 158,000 GPs, or approximately 59 per cent of the total target, have been connected as on March 31, 2021.

Lessons for Phase II

In Phase I, the GPs were connected by BSNL using its existing fibre, which was available beyond the blocks up to the GPs. But there have been several issues with Phase I and the network has not reached the desired service-level agreement levels. So, in Phase II, we altered the implementation strategy and decided to use new fibre from the blocks to the GPs. Further, unlike in Phase I where we laid only underground optical fibre cable, in Phase II we are also depending on satellite and radio to connect GPs that are located remotely. Further, we are using aerial fibre.

Moreover, in Phase II, the states have been involved in the implementation alongside the CPSUs. Eight states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Gujarat – have been allocated 50 per cent of the total work of Phase II, for execution in EPC mode. The states have been given the flexibility to adopt or enhance architecture as they want. Out of the eight, three states – Jharkhand, Odisha and Gujarat – have continued with the linear architecture that was originally sanctioned by the government, whereas Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have gone ahead with ring architecture. These five states are also contributing their own funds for laying the network.

Furthermore, under Phase I, central funds were approved only for creation of the network and not for operations and maintenance (O&M) or utilisation, which led to several GPs remaining non-operational for a long period. However, when Phase II was sanctioned in July 2017, the cabinet sanctioned funds of over Rs 60 billion for O&M and another Rs 40 billion for utilisation and Wi-Fi provisioning at the GP level.

Experience with states

Under Phase II, the three states using linear architecture are doing comparatively well. Gujarat has completed 90 per cent of the work and will be finishing it by June 2021. Jharkhand and Odisha have completed 60-70 per cent of the work and are aiming to finish it by September 2021.

Of the states implementing IP multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks with ring architecture, Maharashtra has completed about 30 per cent of the work and Chhattisgarh about 60 per cent. Telangana has connected only 16 per cent of GPs but has completed 50 per cent of the duct laying work. Telangana aims to complete the work by September 2021. Andhra Pradesh is facing some issues and work has been almost at a standstill for quite some time. Tamil Nadu was not covered in Phase I. For Phase II, the state has awarded tenders and aims  to complete the work by December 2021.

Addressing challenges

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

  • Maintaining coordination among multiple stakeholders including CPSUs, 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 take up simultaneous work throughout the country;
  • Delays in right-of-way permissions, especially for defence, forest areas and highways;
  • Unavailability of suitable government buildings or custodians for equipment installation in GPs;
  • Change of government/bureaucracy in states, affecting continuity;
  • BSNL’s stressed financials, affecting progress;
  • Delay in the finalisation of tenders by the state and implementing agencies;
  • Frequent lockdowns amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

As for utilisation, the biggest challenges remains poor network availability and uptime, which affect the delivery of services. 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 GPs is often kept in debilitated buildings with no or inadequate power supply and without a custodian, which affects equipment upkeep. Keeping enough resources to protect and maintain the network in rural, remote areas is always a challenge. There are multiple agencies involved in the maintenance of the Phase I network. This delays the localisation of faults and allocation to the agency responsible. BSNL’s financial condition is impacting the maintenance of BSNL’s fibre used in BharatNet as well as the services being provided by GPON vendors under AMC.

The other challenge in utilisation is the high cost of internet leased lines (ILLs) for the back and the uncertain demand in rural areas. ISPs are not willing to take the risk of making upfront investments in the leasing of ILLs and BharatNet bandwidth, with no certainty of demand and volumes. Further, in the absence of any designated agency to provide broadband connections on demand, some demand remains unfulfilled.

The challenges notwithstanding, the project has done well in the past two years owing to certain measures. To improve maintenance and network availability, the work of maintenance of incremental fibre and first-line maintenance of GPON equipment in GPs has been entrusted to the CSC special purpose vehicle (SPV), which has a presence in the last mile through a network of village-level entrepreneurs. Further, to address large-scale damages, BBNL has come out with a tender to replace more than 10,000 km of fibre across the country. The tender has since been awarded and the work will be completed very soon. Moreover, the government is providing funds for the provisioning of Wi-Fi access points and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections to government institutions in the GPs. In order to ensure synergy between maintenance and utilisation, a large part of the work of providing last-mile connectivity under Phase I has been entrusted to the CSC SPV. Further, GIS mapping of BharatNet assets is being undertaken to help improve the maintenance of underground assets. GIS mapping of 30 per cent of the Phase I network has been completed.

In Phase II, we are laying fibre right from the GPs, not using the BSNL fibre. With all these O&M measures, network uptime has improved.  In the past two years, we have made an improvement in the operationalisation of GPs, from 28,000 to  over 95,000 GPs now. We are also working on network uptime so that availability can be increased.

With the improvement in network uptime, utilisation has also increased, although a large part of the utilisation has come through Wi-Fi and FTTH provisioning by the CSC SPV under viability gap funding. At present, utilisation has been affected in about 100,000 GPs by providing Wi-Fi access points and FTTH connections. Currently, more than 500,000 FTTH connections, 80 per cent of them to government institutions, have been provided, out of which almost 300,000 are active connections. The exponential growth in data consumption, almost 13 times in the past one year, is also testimony to the growing utilisation of BharatNet. In order to address the issue of viability and connections on demand, we  are also working on a revenue-sharing model with TSPs and ISPs.

Opportunities for the private sector

There lies a big opportunity for the private sector as currently only 59 per cent of the BharatNet project has been completed. Besides, we have already decided to go the PPP way for almost 55 per cent of the network. The tender documents for the PPP work are under approval. Once approval is received, tenders will be floated for selected states.

PPP is, in fact, the biggest opportunity for the private sector, as contracts will hold for the next 30 years. The scope will include upgradation of the existing network from linear to IP MPLS, as well as the creation of a new network. We look forward to the support of private players through investments to take the vision of BharatNet forward, providing broadband connectivity on a non-discriminatory basis universally to the entire rural population and institutions, as per demand and at an affordable price.