Sarvesh Singh, Chairman and Managing Director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited

The BharatNet project aimed at connecting all gram panchayats (GPs) in India with high speed optic fibre cable (OFC) is seen as a game changer. In the past few years, the government has modified the implementation strategy for the project by assigning a bigger role to the states in order to expedite fibre roll-out. However, the progress has been rather slow. The government is now planning to increase private sector participation to enhance the reach, scope and utilisation of the critical infrastructure being developed under the project. In a webinar recently organised by, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), spoke about the progress made under the BharatNet project, the targets and implementation strategies, and opportunities for various stakeholders in the telecom value chain. Excerpts…

How has been the progress under the BharatNet project so far?
BBNL was formed in 2012 to connect all the 250,000 GPs in India by laying OFC, which would take broadband connectivity to rural areas, with the ultimate aim of bridging the digital divide. The project took off in a big way only after 2014, as during the initial years we were getting systems in place. This included inviting the state governments to sign right-of-way (RoW) agreements. It was also during this period that the project details pertaining to technology, methodology, etc. were finalised. It was decided that gigabit passive optical network (GPON) technology will be used and OFC was assumed to be the best medium to extend the broadband from the block level to the GPs.

Much of the groundwork started in 2014, with targets of connecting 100,000 GPs under Phase I and another 150,000 GPs under Phase II. Phase I was completed in December 2017 and was executed by three CPSUs – Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid) and RailTel.

However, progress on the project was fairly slow and a change in implementation strategy was proposed midway. In July 2017, the government decided to increase the scope of Phase I to 125,000 GPs, and came out with a different implementation model for connecting the balance 125,000 GPs. Unlike Phase I, in Phase II, the states have also been involved in implementation along with CPSUs. The 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. BSNL was assigned to execute almost one-third of the total Phase II work, for execution in EPC and non-EPC modes although the work to be executed under EPC mode has since been withdrawn. Powergridwas assigned the work of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand but the same has also been withdrawn. BBNL had taken upon itself the execution of work in Punjab and Bihar. So far, under the revised Phase I target, only 5,000 GPs are left to be connected. Under Phase II, almost 18,000 GPs have been connected. Overall, 138,000 GPs have been made service ready till date, accounting for 53-55 per cent of the overall work. Under Phase II, most of the progress has been made in BBNL-executed states and by Gujarat under the state-led model. In the states of Punjab and Bihar, where BBNL is the executing agency, the work is nearing completion. Similarly, in Gujarat, 80 per cent of the work has been completed. Meanwhile, large part of Phase II work that was withdrawn from BSNL and Powergrid has been decided to be taken up for execution under public-private partnership (PPP) model.

What has been the experience in terms of network utilisation?
BBNL was formed with the mandate of infrastructure creation, operation and maintenance. It was only in July 2017 that the union cabinet sanctioned funds for the first time for last-mile connectivity beyond GPs. Now, when BBNL lays fibre, there are two ways in which it gets utilised. One, we offer bandwidth to all service providers at the GP level. Two, we give available spare fibre as dark fibre to service providers on non-discriminatory basis at a very nominal price.

So far we have provisioned more than 1.35 million Mbps of bandwidth under BharatNet and have leased almost 13,000 km of dark fibre. The bandwidth has been used by TSPs and ISPs for providing Wi-Fi/fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections beyond the GP level. More than 200,000 Wi-Fi Access points have been provided in over 50,000 GPs, largely by CSC SPV, which has been assigned the work for Phase I on a nomination basis. Similarly, more than 39,000 FTTH connections have been provided in over 27,000 GPs by BSNL, CSC and other ISPs. CSC SPV has also been assigned to provide FTTH connections to five government institutions in about 78,000 GPs of Phase I, the work for which is now starting.

What are some of the technologies that are being used besides fibre for connectivity?
Under Phase I, only fibre was used as the connectivity medium. But soon it was observed that in far-flung areas and difficult terrain, radio or satellite would be a better option. Thus, in Phase II, while we are largely using fibre, we have also used radio connectivity and satellite. Satcom has been used in about 5,000 GPs so far, mostly in the Northeast. We are now in the process of increasing this to 7,000 GPs, and have already tendered Telecom Consultants India Limited for the purpose.

What is your opinion on utilising power utilities’ infrastructure for augmenting fibre connectivity?
We are using aerial fibre in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and partly in Maharashtra. Wherever we are using aerial, we are using ADSS cable on the power network.

Are you using automation to monitor such a massive fibre infrastructure?
We have a network operating centre (NOC) through which we monitor the performance of work at the GPs and check for failures, etc. The NOC helps us in collecting information, based on which we provide maintenance support to our technicians in the field. Going forward, we plan to upgrade the NOC for a lot of customer-related activities such as billing. In the state-led model under Phase II, all states are establishing their own NOCs. We are also undertaking GIS mapping for the complete network and it will be available soon.

What are your plans for implementation in the PPP mode?
As already mentioned, under Phase II, networks in around 27,000 GPs will be created in PPP mode. About 22,000 of these GPs were earlier allocated to BSNL in EPC mode but were later taken back due to under-performance and other issues. Also included are GPs of Himachal Pradesh earlier assigned for execution to Powergrid. The balance Phase I GPs of the Northeast being executed by RailTel have also been decided to be taken up under PPP. The PPP contract will involve the creation, maintenance and utilisation of the network – some of these or all of these, depending on the level of work already completed in GPs. Further, the entities will be allowed to take the fibre beyond the GPs up till the tower. The exact modalities will be finalised soon. We have engaged Deloitte as our consultant. Several agencies can participate in this tender. Since the network maintenance contract will be for a time period of 20-25 years, any entity that has the level of commitment can bid for it. Also, since there is scope for creation, maintenance and utilisation of the network, an entity with expertise in one of these areas can also come as a consortium partner with others.

How do you position BBNL with respect to the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) targets?
Under Phase I, we have been providing 100 Mbps connectivity to each panchayat since that is how it was originally planned. But in Phase II we have enhanced it to 1 Gbps connectivity. This is in line with the NDCP.

How has the outbreak of Covid-19 and the consequent lockdown impacted the project?
Work has not progressed much post mid-March. Although some permissions have been granted, they come with a lot of restrictions, especially in districts across Maharashtra and Gujarat. It is difficult to commit for how long this will continue. As of now, we plan to complete the project by August 2021.

What are some of the opportunities for stakeholders in the project?

There is a big opportunity as currently only 55 per cent of the project has been completed. Financially too, we will be spending close to Rs 200 billion in the time to come, which will ultimately go to the private sector for the supply of material and GPON equipment, laying of fibre, etc. At places like Tamil Nadu, the tenders for creation of the network are yet to be finalised. Then there is this PPP tender coming up which will be open for stakeholder participation. Providing last the mile connectivity through Wi-Fi and FTTH connections is a challenge which can be met only with the active cooperation of the private sector. S