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 for the country’s rural broadband landscape. Since its inception, the government has modified the implementation strategy as well as the scope for involvement of various stakeholders to expedite fibre roll-out and service provisioning. BharatNet is one of the strongest pillars of the Digital India programme and once completed, it will be instrumental in bridging the country’s digital divide. At a recent conference, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), spoke about the progress made under the BharatNet project, its targets and implementation strategies, and opportunities it brings for various stakeholders in the telecom value chain. Excerpts…

BharatNet was conceived as the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) in 2011 to connect all the 250,000 GPs of the country through OFC. The objective was the provisioning of affordable bandwidth at the GP level for citizens and institutions in the rural areas.

Later, in 2012, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) was established as a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to create, operate and maintain the network. Following BBNL’s creation, the initial period were spent in taking policy decisions on technology and implementing methodogy. The CPSUs – BSNL, RailTel and PGCIL were shortlisted and pilot projects undertaken with GPON technology. The agreements were signed with states to provide free RoW, as BharatNet was a national asset. Finally, in September 2013, the Telecom Commission decided on the contours of Phase I of the BharatNet project. It was decided that 100,000 GPs will be covered under this phase and work will be carried out through three CPSUs. About 70 per cent of the work was allocated to BSNL and 15 per cent to each of the other two CPSUs.

The on-ground physical work started in mid-2014 and we were able to connect 100,000 GPs by December 2017. Meanwhile, in July 2017, the workfront of Phase I was revised to about 125,000 GPs. Of these, 120,610 GPs have been commissioned so far. Of the three PSUs involved in Phase I, BSNL has completed about 98 per cent of the work, RailTel about 68per cent and Powergrid about 95 per cent of the work. In terms of GPs, BSNL is yet to complete about 1,500 GPs, Powergrid 500 GPs and RailTel 3,500 GPs. Meanwhile, about 21,555 GPs have been commissioned under Phase II so far. In terms of OFC deployment, a total of 443,000 km has been laid under both phases combined, as against the estimated requirement of 843,000 km.

Phase I implementation – Experience and key learnings

Executing Phase I was a learning experience as several challenges came to the fore during its implementation. One such realisation was that underground OFC may not be the best connectivity medium for all territories. So, in July 2017, when Phase II of the project was announced, it was decided that besides underground OFC, several other connectivity media such as aerial OFC, radio and satellite will be considered, depending upon the territorial requirements.

It was for the first time that GPON technology was being deployed on such a large scale. The approval of vendors took time and supplies were therefore delayed. To meet the enormous requirement of OFC, the existing TEC specifications of OFC were modified to enable faster manufacturing.Further, working in the hinterland was not easy. The rural hinterland had limited pathways for cable laying. We witnessed large-scale damages owing to road widening and other exercises by state authorities during Phase I. Similarly, while it was decided that all the equipment would be located at GPs, we found out that in several cases GP buildings were not ready. We then had to install equipment at other locations. Further, due to no clear ownership by the custodian of equipment at GP, even after installation, there were damage and theft of the equipment. As a result, several GPs became non-operational after commissioning. There was no operation and maintenance (O&M) of OFC and GPON equipment which led to GPs remaining non-operational for a long period. Under Phase I, central funds were approved only for creation of network and no funds were sanctioned for O&M or utilisation. It was only at the time of sanction of Phase II in July 2017 that for the first time Cabinet sanctioned funds of over Rs 60 billion for O&M and another Rs 40 billion for utilisation and Wi-Fi provisioning, at the GP level. The network utlisation remained poor in Phase I GPs. The poor network availability was both cause and effect of poor utilisation. It was thought that the utilisation would improve if the states are involved. This led to roping in of the willing states in implementation of BharatNet Phase II.

Phase II implementation status – Targets and achievements

In Phase II, about 136,000 GPs are targeted for commissioning. Of these, work in around 50 per cent (67,759 GPs) is allocated to eight states – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.  BSNL was initially given over 45,000 GPs, but owing to slow progress in the execution and the telcos’ deteriorating financial condition, part of the work was offloaded and was decided to be taken for execution through  private-public partnership (PPP). Currently, BSNL is responsible for carrying out work in approx. 25,000 GPs, which is about 19 per cent of the total work under Phase II. BBNL, on their own also took up execution work in Phase IIin Punjab and Bihar. The 7,724 GPs being executed by BBNL constitute about 6per cent of the total Phase II work.

Currently, 22,115 GPs have been commissioned under Phase II. Significant progress has been made in BBNL-executed states and the work is nearing completion. As for the eight states, in all have commissioned 9,822 GPs which is 14.5 per cent of the total work allocated under state led model.  Gujarat is the only state that has made significant progress and has already completed more than 75 per cent of the allocated work. In all other states, except Tamil Nadu, the work is at various stages of implementation. In the state of TamilNadu, the tenders are yet to be awarded.

Use of alternative media

Under Phase I, only fibre, that too underground, was used as the connectivity medium. Soon it was observed that in far-flung areas and difficult terrain, radio or satellite would be a better option. Thus, in Phase II, we have also used radio connectivity and satellite. Satellite communication is being provided in about 6,275 GPs, largely in the Northeast and J&K, Ladakh. The work is being done by BSNL (1,407 GPs) and BBNL (4,868 GPs). Telecom Consultants India Limited (TCIL) is executing the work for BBNL.

The aerial fibre is faster to install and commission and is also relatively cheaper.  Currently, states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have opted for 100 per cent aerial, while Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have about 87 per cent and 30 per cent of the network respectively being implemented on aerial fibre.

Maintenance and utilisation

In July 2017, we roped in Common Service Centres (CSC SPV) for doing maintenance work as well as for the utilisation of network by providing Wi-Fi and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections at the GP level. We are hopeful that CSC SPV with their vast network of village-level entrepreneurs at the village level would be a great asset in improving network up time and utilisation.

So far, Wi-Fi hotspots have been provided in about 60,000 GPs. At some GPs, it is a single access point while at some other GPs, five to eight access points have been provided. Thus, in all about 2,50,000 access points have been provided under BharatNet. As for the FTTH service, about 144,833 connections have been provided in more than 60,000 GPs by CSC SPV, BSNL and other ISPs. The majority of these connections have been provided to public institutions by CSC SPV.

Immediate challenge – Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is an immediate challenge as it has slowed down the pace of work. In the last financial year, we completed more than 1,12,000 Kms of OFC laying at the rate 9,000 Kms per month. But in the first quarter of this year, with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we could only do one-tenth of what we did in the corresponding period last year. Clearly, the progress has dipped and we are not sure how long it would take to finally pick up pace.

Further, sourcing of funds may also be a challenge. Faced with such an unprecedented situation, funds position, both at the central and state levels, has taken a hit. And without adequate fund allocations, rolling out the network and operational maintenance would be heavily impacted.

We have set a target of August 2021 to complete the project and are making concerted efforts to achieve the same. However, much would depend on how the pandemic unfolds in the coming months and the level of actual physical progress that we can accomplish during the crisis.

PPP model

It is a considered view that going PPP way would help overcome existing challenges in implementation of BharatNet, through upgradation of network, improving maintenance and Up time and providing last mile connectivity up till revenue village. This would enable achievement of ultimate objective of Digital India by providing connectivity to rural households at an affordable price. The PPP work scope would involve not only creation of balance network but also O&M and utilisation of network through viable gap funding by USOF. We are in the process of undertaking industry consultations to fine tune the modalities for roll out of PPP tenders