The government crossed a major milestone in Dec­em­­ber 2017, when it an­­nounced the completion of Phase I of the BharatNet project. Under Phase I, optical fi­bre cable (OFC)-based broad­­­band was extended to 100,000 gram panchayats (GPs) at a total cost of Rs 111.48 billion. Broadband internet connectivity has the potential to empower rural masses by giving them access to information, and public services such as education, health and financial inclusion. As of April 30, 2018, a total of 272,137 km of OFC has been laid and 109,099 gram panchayats have been made service-ready.

Currently, work under Phase II is in full swing and is expected to be completed by March 2019. Under this phase, the government aims to connect the remaining 150,000 gram panchayats. The third and the last phase, to be undertaken between 2018 and 2023, will focus on future-proofing of the network through a ring topology, and developing data centres and service delivery infrastructure to keep pace with emerging technologies such as 5G and internet of things.

Phase II strategy and progress

The implementation strategy of this phase is different from that of Phase I. Unlike Phase I, which provided bro­ad­­­­­band connectivity by laying un­derground OFC, Phase II will see the deployment of an op­timal mix of underground and aerial OFC installations. Apart from fibre, radio and satellite will be utilised to provide connectivity. Around 2,000 gram panchayats have been identified to be connected through sa­tellite. The majority of these are in the sta­­tes of Arunachal Pradesh, As­sam, Hi­ma­­chal Pradesh, Jammu & Kash­­mir and Uttara­kh­and. Further, around 28,000 of them will be connected through wireless technologies.

Also, the implementation of the second phase will be carried out by the state governments, central PSUs and private players as opposed to only three central PSUs involved in the implementation of the first phase. Under Phase II, Bharat San­char Nigam Limited is incharge of eight states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pra­desh, Rajas­­than, Haryana, West Ben­­gal, Sikkim, Ass­am, and Jammu & Kashmir. Detailed project reports (DPRs) for these states have been submitted and tenders have been floated. Fibre roll-out in Maha­rash­­tra, Gu­jarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu is being undertaken by the state governments with seven of these states having already floated requests for proposals. Bha­rat Broad­band Network Limited (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle created for the execution of BharatNet, will oversee the im­p­lementation of Phase II in the states of Pun­jab and Bihar whereas Power Grid Cor­­poration of India Limi­ted will be incharge of Himachal Pradesh and Uttara­kh­and. The government has set a deadline of Mar­ch 2019 for the completion of Phase II.

Service provisioning

Last-mile connectivity and other services under the project will be provided by private players, state governments, municipal bodies, etc. The bandwidth can be leased by these players to provide services to customers. The benefits of leasing bandwidth from BBNL include low pricing, pan-Indian network, best-in-class infrastructure and good after-sales support. As of March 31, 2018, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), Bharti Airtel and other service providers have leased 30,048 km, 2,332 km and 540 km of fibre respectively. More­over, 8,367 fibre-to-the-home connections have been leased by the state governments and 942 state wide area networks have been connected.

Meanwhile, fibre and bandwidth provisioning for government agencies will re­main the mandate of BBNL. BBNL will extend horizontal fibre connectivity to government institutions at the district, block and gram panchayat levels. The tariff for providing connectivity in government institutions will also be fixed by BBNL with approval from the central government.

The way forward

With the completion of the BharatNet project, a large high speed rural communication network will be created. This will pro­­ve to be a game changer, bringing the country’s large rural population into the digital fold. The network could be used for providing diverse services such as education and health care. With the government an­noun­­cing subsidies of around Rs 36 billion, by way of viability gap funding, providing services in rural areas will make increased commercial sense for private players.