BharatNet is a flagship project of the Government of India, providing broadband connectivity to rural India. Under the project, the government is connecting all 265,000 gram panchayats (GPs) of the country, and now also the 379,000 villages beyond the GPs, primarily on high-speed fibre. This expansion of broadband connectivity to bridge the rural-urban digital divide is unleashing a plethora of opportunities for rural India. At tele.net’s recent conference on “OFC Networks in India”, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), spoke about the progress on the project so far, the key challenges and future plans. Edited excerpts…
We have connected approximately 178,000 GPs of the country by laying more than 583,000 km of fibre. Out of this, a little over 4,000 GPs are on satellite and the rest are connected on fibre.
Progress under Phases I and II
BharatNet is being executed in two phases: Phase I and Phase II. At present, BharatNet has 583,000 km of fibre already laid over Phase I and Phase II. While in Phase I, we have laid approximately 310,000 km, in Phase II the remaining 273,000 km has been laid. By May 2023, when we complete the work in progress, we will have approximately 700,000 km of fibre laid under BharatNet.
Under Phase I, we had three central public sector undertakings (CPSUs) that executed the work: Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel and Powergrid Corporation of India Limited. Together, they have connected approximately 120,000 GPs, completing more than 99 per cent of the planned work.
Out of the 265,000 GPs, roughly 145,000 are to be connected in Phase II. Out of this, we have connected about 59,000 GPs while work is in progress in about 44,000, adding up to 103,000 GPs. We did not take up the work for the remaining 42,000 GPs of Phase II as the plan was to connect them along with the new mandate of connecting all villages of the country.
BBNL has done about 5 per cent of the work under Phase II, amounting to 7,382 GPs. Work on these was completed more than a year ago. BSNL is responsible for roughly 17 per cent of the Phase II work, amounting to over 24,000 GPs. It is executing the work in Uttar Pradesh East and West, Madhya Pradesh and Sikkim. Uttar Pradesh East and Madhya Pradesh constitute 90 per cent of BSNL’s work, which is progressing fast and is likely to be completed by December 2022.
Apart from the three CPSUs, we have state-led models whereby eight states are working on the project. This constitutes almost 46 per cent of the Phase II work – approximately 66,000 GPs. Out of the eight states, three states (Jharkhand, Odisha and Gujarat) are using linear architecture with gigabyte passive optical network technology, the same as is used in BharatNet Phase I. Jharkhand and Gujarat have completed the work, and Odisha may complete it in a month’s time
The remaining five states – Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana – have adopted internet protocol (IP) multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) with ring architecture. The quantum of work is more in these states. The work is at various stages of completion. Chhattisgarh has completed over 80 per cent of the work and is likely to complete it in another four to five months. Maharashtra and Telangana have connected around 55-60 per cent of their GPs. While Maharashtra, Telangana and Chhattisgarh are likely to complete their work in the current financial year, work in only Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh may go beyond the current financial year.
The plans for providing connectivity to 42,000 GPs and all the 379,000 villages of the country are at an advanced stage of finalisation. The tenders for providing connectivity to GPs/villages in 16 states under the public-private partnership (PPP) model floated by BBNL had been discharged in February 2022. Now, based on industry feedback, we are revising our estimates and also the strategy, and coming out with more attractive bids.
We are contemplating various models such as a modified hybrid annuity model; engineering, procurement and construction; and PPP etc. In another three months, we will be out with tenders based on the revised implementation strategy.
The scope of work will encompass connecting all 379,000 villages. Also, all the BharatNet Phase I and Phase II work that has linear architecture may be converted to ring architecture with IP MPLS. Altogether, the complete scope of work may require the laying of 1,700,000 km of optical fibre cable (OFC) – underground and aerial combined.
If the tenders are successful, then in the next five years, over 1,700,000 km of fibre is estimated to be laid under BharatNet. . Including the fibre already in the process of being laid, the BharatNet network will span 2,400,000 km of OFC, making it the largest OFC network in the country.
Generally, the biggest challenge in laying OFC networks is right-of-way (RoW) approvals. Although BharatNet has free RoW commitment from the states, the RoW approvals from central agencies such as the railways, the National Highways Authority of India, and the defence and forest departments are still required, which delay the project at many times and places.
A number of initiatives have been undertaken recently on the RoW front. First, there has been a significant push by the Department of Telecommunications, because of which RoW approvals have been expedited in the past six months. Second, there is a prime minister’s Project Monitoring Group portal, which we have started using recently and found it to be very useful. The RoW requirements inputted there get cleared very quickly.
A major challenge that are we facing now is regarding utilisation of BharatNet. We give the network to private players on lease, and they use it for various purposes viz. providing broadband connections, cable TV connections, and fiberisation of towers. We have given 4,000 Gbps of BharatNet bandwidth on lease and over 41,000 km of dark fibre has been leased to private players for various purposes. Over 200,000 fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections have been provided using BharatNet in rural areas, and we have provided Wi-Fi in over 100,000 GPs. Utilisation is the main agenda as of now for the government. We are trying our best to enable utilisation. We are targeting 30 million FTTH connections to be provided to rural institutions and households in the next five years.
One of the challenges to utilisation is poor availability of the network. In order to address this issue, we had earlier assigned the operations and maintenance (O&M) of the BharatNet Phase I incremental fibre to the Common Service Centre special purpose vehicle, considering its strong last-mile presence. Now we have given this work to BSNL, which has floated tenders and engaged professional agencies for service-level agreement (SLA)-based end-to-end maintenance of the network.
With the new O&M agencies already on board, network availability and uptime will improve and with that utilisation will see a rise. Another challenge to utilisation is viability. On the demand side, purchasing power, literacy and access to devices are concerns, which, in turn, put a limit on rural tariffs. On the other hand, the average cost of providing an FTTH connection in rural areas is higher compared to urban areas. So, it is a Catch-22 situation.
We have taken a few measures to address this. In November 2021, we substantially reduced the tariffs for leasing of BharatNet bandwidth. Further, to save service providers from making upfront payments on leasing of BharatNet network, we came up with revenue-sharing arrangements with ISPs where they have to only share a portion of the revenue they earn. These revenue-sharing agreements had been hugely successful, with 105 ISPs already on board, of which five to six are Class A, having signed the agreement on a pan-Indian basis. While the FTTH connections under the revenue sharing agreements look minuscule (3,500 numbers provided so far), their strength lies in their spread to over 33 districts/100 blocks/750 GPs. We have recently offered a further attractive revenue-sharing arrangement to BSNL (also signed an agreement), which we are very soon going to offer to other ISPs as well. Lastly, for broadband to be affordable to the rural poor, in future, the government may consider granting subsidy to the ISPs on the connections that they provide.
In the times to come, there will be a huge requirement of speed and bandwidth. With the advent of 5G, BharatNet fibre will become very precious, and will play a major role in providing data connectivity to rural areas.