In a significant milestone, the government completed Phase I of the BharatNet project.  As of December 31, 2017, over 100,000 gram panchayats across the country were connected with a high-speed optical fibre cable (OFC) network. The government is now upbeat about Phase II of the project and expects to complete it well before the target of March 2019. To this end, it is contemplating including and enforcing a clause on financial incentives for project execution. On the occasion of the completion of Phase I of BharatNet, Aruna Sundararajan, secretary, Department of Telecommunications (DoT), talked about the key highlights of the project, the implementation experience and the strategy for Phase II. Excerpts…

BharatNet is the world’s largest rural broadband project, which will generate massive employment opportunities (both direct and indirect) in the country. It will usher in a rural digital revolution by connecting 250,000 gram panchayats with a broadband network, benefitting more than 200 million rural Indians.

The project has seen a remarkable performance by all stakeholders, who have come together to facilitate speedy implementation of Phase I of the project. It is an outstanding team effort. Under this phase, work was initiated in 4,918 gram panchayats, and only 358 km of OFC was pulled and 59 gram panchayats were made service-ready till May 31, 2014. However, within a span of two years, by June 30, 2016, work was under way in 84,834 gram panchayats, 124,817 km of OFC had been pulled and 7,229 gram panchayats were made service-ready. As on December 31, 2017, 254,895 km of OFC has been laid, covering 109,926 gram panchayats, of which 101,370 gram panchayats have been made service-ready. A notable development has been the laying of 800 km of OFC per day, which is a global record. Further, in the past three years, 250 km of OFC has been laid every day on an average, which is again a milestone.

The second important milestone un­der this project has been the implementation of the Make in India initiative by the telecom sector, which is a significant departure from the past. Earlier, the project had been relying heavily on imported equipment. However, for the first time, every single component for the BharatNet project, ranging from OFC to electronic equipment, has been indigenously made and fully designed, developed and manufactured in India.

Big credit for this goes to the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) be­cau­se it came up with the design of the very robust gigabit passive optical network (GPON) equipment, which is being ins­tall­­ed as a part of the project. Owing to this, India is in a position to actually assist other similar emerging economies in the development of telecom infrastructure. We have al­ready received expressions of interest from so­me emerging economies for assistance from C-DOT and the Govern­ment of India.

Credit also goes to the actual manufacturers, particularly ITI Limited. Although the company has been facing severe challenges, it has managed to make a breakthrough and has today become a very significant manufacturer of GPON equipment. Tejas Networks is also one of the promising telecom hardware companies that has supported the roll-out of the BharatNet project.

Further, common service centres (CSCs) have made an outstanding contribution. The CSCs put in a magnificent ef­fort and sometimes even invested their own money to ensure the timely completion of the project. Last, but certainly not the least, is Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), which put its best foot forward from the beginning to the end. The entire BSNL team has played a key role in all the states. For instance, when we look at the performance in Uttar Pradesh, the state alone had the task to complete 24,000 gram panchayats out of the targeted 100,000 gram panchayats under the first phase. This seemed to be a Herculean task. However, teams from BSNL, Bharat Broadband Net­work Limited (BBNL) and the Universal Service Obligation Fund managed to complete the task. Further, there are many states in which the BBNL-BSNL team has done much more than what was expected of them. Moreover, the suppliers of cables, ducts, etc. have also proved that India is capa­ble of meeting its future needs.

“The roll-out of BharatNet truly marks the beginning of the wired and wireless broadband rural revolution in India. The project is aimed at providing affordable broadband services to citizens and institutions in rural and remote areas, in partnership with the states and the private sector.”

After the completion of Phase I, the ­focus­ has to now shift towards ensuring ­proper utilisation of this infrastructure. We hope that telecom service providers (TSPs), who have already made commitments to the project at the recently held state-level workshop, would now swing into action. TSPs have made a commitment to provide services in 70,000 gram panchayats. To this end, all of them have rolled out pilots, which have been successful. They will now start commercial roll-out shortly.

In addition, for the first time in terms of utilisation, BSNL is installing 25,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, where the backup will be from BharatNet. To this end, 16,000 ­­hot­spots­­ have started providing services. Similarly, CSCs have installed 5,000 ­Wi-Fi hotspots and some village-level ­entre­p­reneurs have already started ­delivering services such as Wi-Fi, ­fibre-to-the-home wired connections and telemedicine facilities to the local ­population. Since BBNL is already in the process of ­finalising a tie-up with the CSCs, we hope that they will soon become active partners in utilisation. This would ensure the rolling out of many e-governance, telemedicine, legal, as well as other livelihood services for the benefit of the rural population.

Meanwhile, we have started work under Phase II of the BharatNet project in right earnest. The cabinet had appro­ved­ Bharat­Net Phase II for ­connecting the remaining 150,000 gram panchayats. To this end, BBNL has ­floated a tender for bringing the participants on board. The BSNL tenders are also out. Through these Wi-Fi tenders, we hope the number of Wi-Fi hotspots in India will increase from 38,000 to 1.5 ­million by the end of Phase II, which is planned for December 2018. We believe that this would be a game changer.

Eight states have already come forward with their own models under the next phase of BharatNet. These include Guja­­rat, Ch­ha­t­­tisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maha­rashtra. This will make the roll-out interesting as states are also tying up for delivering last-mile connectivity of 10-15 Mbps speed to each household. Under Phase II, work has already started in Rai­sen district of Madhya Pradesh. Further, work has started at a few other places and we hope that the next milestone of connecting 125,000 gram panchayats is achieved by February 2018.

The roll-out of BharatNet truly mar­ks the beginning of the wired and wire­­­less­ broadband rural revolution in India. The infrastructure created under Bharat­­­­Net will be a national asset, ­ac­ce­ssi­ble on a non-discriminatory basis to ­service ­­provi­ders. The project is aimed providing affordable broadband services to citizens and ins­­titutions in rural and remote areas, in partnership with the states and the private sector.

We hope that BharatNet will provide the infrastructure to deliver on the aspirations of and meet the service requirements under the Digital India programme.