Manoj Sinha, minister of state for communications

The government’s ambitious BharatNet project, which aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram pancha­yats, has now entered the second phase of its implementation. Launched in 2012, the project missed several of its original deadlines owing to frequent cost revisions, delays in obtaining clearances and equipment, and the slow disbursement of funds. However, in the past two years, the project has gathered significant momentum and the first phase is expected to be completed by the year end. Meanwhile, the second phase is proposed to be significantly different from the first in terms of its implementation strategy, the media to be used and the enhanced participation of the state governments. At a recent national conference, “BharatNet and Its Utilisation with States”, Manoj Sinha, minister of state for communications, highlighted the progress made under BharatNet, the key features of the second phase of the project and the role of different stakeholders…

India has overtaken the US to be­come the second largest smartphone market in the world. It is also ahead of the US in the number of internet users and is second only to China. It is safe to say that we are truly moving towards a digital future. What seemed like a dream a few years ago is now becoming a reality. The prime minister’s vision of Digital India is on the right track and BharatNet is an integral part of the dream.

With the BharatNet and Digital India programmes, we hope to touch lives, connect people, inform, educate, spread awareness, create jobs, save lives, build relationships, nurture bonds, make significant in­vest­ments, contribute to the exchequer and the economy, and, above all, bridge the digital divide and amplify financial inclusion.

The BharatNet project, earlier known as the National Optical Fibre Network pro­­ject, was launched in 2012. However, little pro­g­ress was made on it in the previous regi­me. Actual work commenced in the second half of 2014. Ever since I have ta­k­en charge, I have been personally involved in the project and have made sure that all the updated timelines are met. The project involves connecting all the 250,000 gram panchayats in the country to the block headquarters for the provision of both bandwidth and dark fibre on a universal and non-discriminatory basis. The network is capable of providing scalable bandwidth, up to 1 Gbps, furthering the vision of a truly empowered and connected India. It is expected to augment digital connectivity, which has the potential to create direct and indirect employment opportunities in rural and remote areas. The provision of broadband and associated services has a positive impact on GDP growth, besides facilitating quicker, transparent and cost-effective governance. Initially, the project faced many impediments, which affected its progress. Relying entirely on the existing Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited network, focusing on providing connectivity only through underground optical fibre cable (OFC) and non-inclusion of service provision were the main reasons for the initial delay in the roll-out of the project. Operations and maintenance of the network and its utilisation required detailed rethinking and going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch.

For the purpose of implementation, the BharatNet project has been divided into Phases I and II. In the past year, the pro­­gress under Phase I has picked up tremendously. I am happy to share with you that  optical fibre has already been laid for 100,000 gram panchayats in Phase I, equipment has been ins­talled in more than 85,000 gram panchayats, services are ready in more than 75,000 gram panchayats and services started in more than 47,000 gram panchayats. The progress of service-readiness has picked up to such an extent that,  in October 2017, around 25,000 gram pan­­chayats were made service ready. To achieve this, the process of equipment pro­­­­curement was smoothened by decentralising it. Moreover, multilayered monitoring has been instrumental in achieving this success in the past few months.

The cabinet, in July 2017, approved a modified implementation strategy for BharatNet. The highlights of this strategy for BharatNet Phase II involve the laying of OFC directly from the blocks to gram panchayats using aerial OFC, radio links and satellite connectivity (apart from underground OFC), maintenance by the implementing agency for the entire life of the project, setting up Wi-Fi architecture for optimal service delivery, and project completion across the 250,000 gram panchayats by March 2019. Under the modified strategy, the most important change is the involvement of the states along with central public sector undertakings and the private sector for implementation of the project. The states being the most important stakeholders in the provision of bandwidth also stand to gain the most. Once this block-to-gram panchayat link is established for citizen-centric services such as e-health, e-education and e-governance, implementation is expected to be much faster and smoother with the participation of all states.

To ensure smoother operations, advan­ce actions were taken such as consulting various state governments, providing them with funds to carry out surveys of electrical poles where aerial cables may be deployed and other such activities. Every­thing was done after consultation with the stakeholders, leaving nothing to chance. Based on the positive response received from various states, the proposals of Gujarat, Maha­­­rashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jhar­khand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu were approved by the Tele­com Commission in September 2017. I compliment the states that provided a detailed report on time and extended their full support in resolving the technical, commercial and financial issues that are common in projects of this nature, size, scale, scope and magnitude. Andhra Pradesh has already established an optical fibre network for delivering triple-play services to all households. In some parts of the state, they also have a revenue model, which can be suitably replicated in other places, thus creating a use-case study and true last-mile connectivity. Meanwhile, in Telangana, the laying of OFC along with water pipelines under its Bhagirathi project has been envisaged. I am happy to note that such sharing of resources will help utilise limited resources and also result in better maintenance practices, creating limitless possibilities for the nation and the respective states. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, a local network on optical fibre, called BastarNet, has been established by the state government from its own funds. Other states have also taken initiatives in establishing OFC-enabled networks. I am sure that the states will not rest with what is being provided under the BharatNet project but will suitably use the enhanced architecture to further improve the quality of service and public adoption.

“As the world and India move from voice to data, BharatNet will herald a new era in connectivity and empowerment, reaching the poorest of the poor. Extremely competitive and market-friendly tariffs for the provision of bandwidth and dark fibre have already been finalised.”

As far as the utilisation aspect of Bha­rat­­­Net is concerned, the major users of this network are telecom service providers, internet service providers, multisystem operators and local cable operators, which will use BharatNet for providing broadband services and extending the mobile network in rural and remote areas for serving the underserved populations and connecting the unconnected. As the world and India move from voice to data, BharatNet will herald a new era in connectivity and empowerment, reaching the poorest of the poor and every corner of the nation. Extremely competitive and market-friendly tariffs for the provision of bandwidth and dark fibre have already been finalised.

Telecom operators have some very innovative and impressive ideas for providing services using BharatNet. I urge them to come forward and use the middle-mile connectivity from BharatNet. All the requisite support will be offered to them for fulfilling the dreams of a fully connected and truly empowered India. This is our mission and vision for the nation. It is equally a call to action for the entire nation to connect India. “Create, collaborate and conquer” is the mantra of today, and this is also the mantra of our government.

Important and critical stakeholders and end-users of this network are the government ministries, departments and state governments. I believe that they will use the network for various citizen-centric services such as e-health, e-education and e-medicine.

BharatNet will help the states provide digital access to all citizens including the most deprived and marginalised sections of society, especially in rural areas, and bridge the digital divide. I urge all the states to come forward and include BharatNet in their plans for spreading digital literacy, building digital capacity proficiency and proliferation of e-government services.