The past few years have seen rural and remote areas emerge as the harbingers of digital growth. As urban areas seem to be substantially connected in terms of availability of telecom services, the onus for steering the country towards the next phase of digital transformation has shifted to rural and remote areas.
The hope that rural users will infuse new energy into the telecom sector and help make more profits has prompted the government to undertake several large-scale initiatives for boosting connectivity in such areas. These initiatives, including BharatNet, for enhancing connectivity in the Northeast and left wing extremism (LWE)-affected areas have been playing an instrumental role in the digital transformation of the country’s hinterland.
A look at the progress under key government initiatives and the way forward…
BharatNet is aimed at providing broadband connectivity to the country’s 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) through optic fibre cable (OFC). The government has so far disbursed Rs 193.34 billion under the project for all states and union territories. Phase I of the project, which entailed connecting 100,000 GPs, was completed in December 2017.
As of February 14, 2019, a total of 312,526 km of OFC has been laid in around 124,048 GPs. Of these, 117,033 GPs have been connected through OFC. Further, last-mile connectivity through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology to access broadband/internet services is being provided to all GPs. On an average, five Wi-Fi access points (APs) are being provided to each GP. Of these, three APs will be connected to government establishments such as police stations, schools, hospitals and post offices while two APs will be available for public use. According to latest figures, Wi-Fi hotspots have been set up in 41,139 GPs while services have been made operational at 10,883 GPs.
Free fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections have been provisioned in all GPs for one year. A total of 100,047 FTTH connections have been provided till date from the BharatNet network. The states have been encouraged to take up FTTH connections for connecting their state wide area networks with BharatNet.
Progress in the Northeast
The government, along with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), has rolled out a slew of initiatives for providing connectivity in the Northeast. One of these initiatives is the Comprehensive Telecom Development Project for the Northeast that involves the installation of 6,673 mobile towers in 8,621 identified uncovered villages, 321 mobile towers on national highways, and strengthening of the transmission network in the region. The estimated cost of the project, being funded by the Universal Service Obligation [USO] Fund, is Rs 53.36 billion.
In January 2018, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was awarded a contract for in-stalling 2,817 mobile towers to provide mobile coverage across 4,119 uncovered villages of Arunachal Pradesh and two districts of Assam. In December 2017, Bharti Airtel and Bharti Hexacom Limited were awarded a contract for the installation of 2,004 mobile towers in the rest of the region (except Meghalaya). The in-stallation of mobile towers is to be completed within 18 months from the signing of the agreement. Meanwhile, in May 2018, the government approved the installation of 2,173 mobile towers in Meghalaya.
In January 2018, the government also launched the Asthamangal project at a cost of around Rs 350 million. Under the project, alternative bandwidth of 810 Gbps has been provided by BSNL through optical power ground fibre of Power Grid Corporation of India Limited at all state headquarters and important locations in the Northeast.
Progress in the Andaman & Nicobar, and Lakshadweep Islands
Of late, the government has been focusing on enhancing connectivity in the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands. It has launched the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the Andaman & Nicobar, and Lakshadweep Islands. The programme entails:
- Enhancing submarine OFC connectivity between Chennai and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands
- Augmenting satellite bandwidth from 260 Mbps to 2 Gbps and the intra-island OFC network in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands
- Providing mobile connectivity to uncovered villages in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and seamless coverage on National Highway (NH)-223
- Augmenting satellite bandwidth from 102 Mbps to 1.71 Gbps and 2G mobile coverage with EDGE technology in Lakshadweep.
The government plans to set up 167 additional towers for providing mobile coverage in 165 uncovered villages in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and 42 towers for providing connectivity to uncovered areas on the entire 129 km long stretch of NH-223.
As of January 2, 2019, satellite bandwidth has been augmented in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Further, the submarine cable-based connectivity project for the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands that has a total capital outlay of Rs 22.5 billion is currently under implementation. Recently, DoT’s proposal for the Chennai Andaman Nicobar Islands (CANI) undersea OFC system was cleared by an expert appraisal committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The total length of the submarine cable system will be 2,199.66 km and it is expected to be implemented at a cost of Rs 712.8 million. It will connect the Indian mainland from Chennai with eight islands in Andaman & Nicobar. The CANI system will provide a speed of 100 Gbps and assist the Andaman & Nicobar Islands’ communications security, especially during natural disasters or system failures.
Progress across LWE-affected areas
The LWE-affected areas have been receiving substantial government attention the past few years. The government has launched a project for enhancing mobile communication services in the LWE-affected areas in 10 states – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The cabinet approved Phase I of the LWE project in 2014. As of February 6, 2019, 2,343 tower locations of the total 2,355 planned locations have been made operational under Phase I.
In May 2018, the cabinet approved the proposal for Phase II of the project, which will provide mobile connectivity at 4,072 tower locations in the LWE-affected areas in 96 districts of 10 states. The budgetary provision for the project is around Rs 73.3 billion.
Challenges and the way forward
While the government has taken significant initiatives to augment digital connectivity, there is still a large gap in on-the-ground implementation. For instance, March 2019 deadline of BharatNet looks difficult, as close to 100,000 GPs are yet to be connected. Moreover, the deployment of commercial broadband connections in GPs has been tardy. According to industry reports, of the total 250,000 GPs, less than 2.5 per cent have commercial broadband connections. In the Northeast, MoUs have not been operationalised despite being signed. In the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the deadline for bid submission for installing mobile towers has been extended eleven times, owing to the lack of operator interest. Further, disbursement of funds by the USO Fund has been a major hurdle in the timely implementation of these projects.
Going forward, the government will need to strictly monitor the implementation of these projects and work towards eliminating procedural and implementation delays. This will go a long way in redefining connectivity and digital engagement dynamics in the country.