Tracking BharatNet: Phase II to focus on improving last-mile connectivity

Phase II to focus on improving last-mile connectivity

Under the BharatNet project, the government envisages providing high speed broadband connectivity (about 100 Mbps bandwidth) to 250,000 gram panchayats. The scope of the project involves laying of incremental fibre from the fibre point of interconnect (FPoI) to gram panchayats and offering non-discriminatory access. It is being implemented in three phases. Phase I, which is currently under implementation, aims to connect 100,000 gram panchayats. The remaining will be covered under Phase II, which is expected to be completed by December 2018. The focus under Phase III will be on future-proofing of the network through ring architecture by 2023.

While Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) is the executing agency, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited are the implementing agencies for Phase I. Currently, the three implementing agencies together have lit 18,297 gram panchayats as of April 16, 2017, while optical fibre cable (OFC) has been installed in around 90,000 gram panchayats.

Learning from Phase I

First, it was observed that there is a strong requirement to decentralise procurement as well as decision-making by the implementing agencies. Second, states and private agencies have to be involved in the project to fast-track work. Additional competition from other agencies will also encourage the existing implementation agencies to improve their performance. Third, operations and maintenance (O&M) of the deployed infrastructure is extremely critical for ensuring seamless service, once the network gets ready and goes live.

Revised implementation strategy

On the basis of the past experience of the implementation agencies and learning derived from such experience, a modified implementation framework has been proposed. An optimal mix of media (aerial, radio, satellite) will be used, in addition to the underground laying of fibre for connecting gram panchayats. Second, besides the three existing central public sector units (CPSUs), several other agencies will be involved in the project implementation through the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) route. These will include other CPSUs

having the capacity to implement such large-scale projects, states and state agencies like distribution companies (discoms) and private sector players. Third, the project will be funded through several sources, besides capex funding from the Universal Service Obligation [USO] Fund. This additional provisioning (over and above the USO Fund) will be required and utilised for last-mile architecture so that citizens at the gram panchayat level can access the BharatNet network; O&M of the network and replacement of 50,000 km of fibre between the block headquarter and FPoI; horizontal connectivity to government institutions facilitated by the USO Fund or BBNL; and pilots for testing commercial/technology models for last-mile connectivity.

To facilitate project implementation through the private sector, an open tender process by BBNL for the award of work on an EPC basis will be considered. Work may be awarded for executing the entire project, including last-mile connectivity and service delivery in a state, or a part of the project. O&M arrangements for such states will be formulated by BBNL. Further, network management, operations and monitoring through a centralised network operating centre will also take place under BBNL. The infrastructure thus created will be considered as a national asset.

Last-mile connectivity

In a bid to ensure that services reach the ultimate user, BharatNet will provide last-mile connectivity through internet kiosks and hotspots. These will be established through the public-private partnership model by way of viability gap funding. The proposed projects under implementation include setting up of Wi-Fi hotspots at 5,000 gram panchayats and non-discriminatory access to service providers for last-mile connectivity and delivery.

Based on a presentation by Saurabh Mohan, Deputy Administrator, USO Fund