With a view to transform the entire ecosystem of public services through the use of information technology, the government launched the Digital India programme in July 2015. The programme is centred on three key areas – digital infrastructure as a core utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens.

During the launch of the programme, the key initiatives announced by the government included the creation of an online repository of documents (digital locker), an e-sign framework, a national e-governance plan (eKranti) and e-Hospitals. Since then, the government has expanded the scope of the programme by launching new initiatives and broadening the thrust areas of existing ones so as to make more services available to citizens. For instance, in December 2015, the government launched 22 initiatives under the programme including projects in the areas of digital infrastructure, digital empowerment, on-demand government services and promotion of the electronics industry. Further, in a major breakthrough in March 2016, the government gave a statutory backing to the Aadhaar framework, which will be the key enabler for the provision of online services.

However, a major challenge in the implementation of the Digital India initiative has been the slow progress being made under the BharatNet project. The project, which forms the backbone of Digital India, aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats through optical fibre. It is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), and the cable is being laid by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, RailTel Corporation of India (RailTel) and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited. However, significant cost revisions, delays in procuring clearances and equipment, and the continuing absence of a chief executive at BBNL to monitor the roll-out have severely affected its development. As per the Economic Survey 2015-16, optical fibre cable (OFC) has been laid in only 32,049 gram panchayats as of end-November 2015.

Owing to the slow roll-out of Bharat­Net and the consequent delays in the launch of services under Digital India, several states have introduced their own programmes in order to provide digital infrastructure and services to citizens.  Further, seven states have proposed to develop their own models for the roll-out of BharatNet. These include Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal

tele.net takes a look at some of the key initiatives taken by three states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – in this regard…

Tamil Nadu: In March 2016, the Tamil Nadu government launched a low-cost internet service Arasu Fibre as part of its initiative to provide internet services to every household in the state. The service will be provided by state-owned Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation Limited (TACTV), which had obtained an internet service provider licence from the Ministry of Communications and Infor­mation Technology in October 2015. TACTV has announced various broadband plans priced between Rs 299 and Rs 899, and speeds ranging from 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. The government has also launched 126 TACTV e-service centres in the state, at an investment of Rs 19.5 million, which will enable citizens to pay their property tax, electricity bill and water tax online.

At present, TACTV has a subscriber base of 7.05 million on a network comprising 26,246 local cable operators. It has also signed an MoU with RailTel to provide broadband and internet services through local cable operators.

In a bid to offer internet services in remote areas of the state, TACTV is planning to set up an aerial optical fibre (AOF) network by leveraging the existing infrastructure of Tamil Nadu Transmission Corporation Limited and Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited. The network will be compatible with both IPv6 and IPv4 networks, and will be available for businesses of telecom providers, cable operators and entrepreneurs. Through the AOF network, the government aims to deliver broadband connections, to remote households (with speeds of 10-20 Mbps), all government offices, schools and businesses, and set up a central network operating centre in Chennai and a point of presence in each of the districts, taluks and block headquarters.

Meanwhile, the state government has announced its plan to set up the Tamil Nadu Fibernet Corporation at an investment of Rs 30 billion to implement the BharatNet project.

Andhra Pradesh: The Andhra Pradesh government launched an ambitious Fibre Grid project in November 2015 to provide broadband connectivity to all households in the state. The project envisages taking fibre connectivity to the substation level while last mile connectivity would be provided by cable operators and multi-service operators. It is being implemented by Andhra Pradesh State FiberNet Limited in collaboration with networking equipment manufacturer Cisco.

The first phase of the project entails the laying of 23,000 km of OFC network in 13 districts of the state with 375,000 electric cables, at an investment of Rs 3.33 billion. Around 9,000 km of OFC has been already laid under the project and the remaining is expected to be deployed by July 2016.

Meanwhile, Cisco will set up an internet of everything (IoE) innovation centre in Visakhapatnam to enable partners and start-ups to build prototypes and solutions around IoE. It will also develop an advanced technology centre of excellence and a research lab at the Institute of Digital Technology in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. The research lab will focus on cybersecurity, smart city and manufacturing solutions, and train engineers in advanced digital technologies.

With all these initiatives, the government hopes to realise the goal of a digital Andhra Pradesh by 2018.

Kerala: While progress under BharatNet has been extremely slow at the pan-Indian level, Kerala has achieved the distinction of becoming the country’s first “digital state” to link all its villages with broadband under the programme. Apart from BharatNet, the state government’s own projects like the Kerala State Data Centre and the Kerala State Wide Area Network have helped develop a robust digital infrastructure. Teledensity in the state has reached 95 per cent and more than 60 per cent of the population has access to the internet. Leveraging its strong digital infrastructure, the Kerala government has now launched several initiatives, which aim to digitally empower citizens from all walks of life. For instance, the state currently has more than 600 e-governance applications covering almost all government departments.

Kerala’s achievements can be attributed to the fact that the state has been one of the early adopters of digital technology. As early as in 2002, it launched two breakthrough projects in e-literacy – the Akshaya Project with the objective of making at least one person in every family e-literate and the IT@school project, which aimed at providing basic computer knowledge to every high school student.

Going forward, the government plans to launch an m-governance project to develop a single mobile application for accessing a variety of government services, deploy Wi-Fi hotspots in government schools, launch a drive to make government offices paperless and convert all the state’s Akshaya centres into e-banking kiosks.

The way forward

While the states are coming up with their own initiatives for Digital India implementation, the central government should also expedite the roll-out of the programme at the pan-Indian level so that its benefits reach all citizens. The success of Digital India hinges on the roll-out of BharatNet. Hence, the government should take steps to accelerate its roll-out on a priority basis. To this end, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has suggested the adoption of a public-private partnership model, which would align private incentives with long-term service delivery.

Puneet Kumar Arora