With the completion of the BharatNet project, a large high speed rural communication network will be created, bringing the country’s rural population into the digital fold. The network could be used for providing diverse services such as e-governance, education and healthcare. In the past few years, the government has modified BharatNet’s implementation strategy to assign a bigger role to the states for expeditious fibre roll-out. It is also considering a roadmap for greater private sector participation to enhance the reach, scope and utilisation of the massive and critical infrastructure being developed. At a recent conference on “OFC Networks in India”, Sarvesh Singh, chairman and managing director, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), shared his views on the implementation experience of BharatNet Phase II, the progress so far and future targets. Excerpts…
The BharatNet project was initiated in October 2011, when the government decided to set up a national optical fibre network to provide broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats. The key objective was to bridge the digital divide by enhancing broadband connectivity in rural India. The optical fibre cable (OFC) network was already available up to the block level but taking it beyond, to the level of gram panchayats, was not feasible for private operators. The government therefore decided to bridge this connectivity gap by developing infrastructure to provide government schemes to the rural masses and at the same time allowed private operators to use it for facilitating last-mile connectivity. Essentially, the BharatNet infrastructure was conceived as a national asset, with the government aiming to deliver all its schemes through this network.
Under Phase I, 100,000 gram panchayats (later revised to 125,000 gram panchayats) were to be connected. To expedite network roll-out, the implementation strategy involved utilising Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) already laid OFC infrastructure wherever possible and building incremental fibre beyond it. Phase I implementation was undertaken through three central PSUs – BSNL, RailTel Corporation of India Limited and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited – wherein, the material was procured by BBNL. At the block level, the architecture was linear GPON (gigabit passive optical network) based. The equipment was installed at BSNL’s exchanges or at gram panchayat buildings, post offices, police stations, schools, etc.
In 2015, the government launched its landmark Digital India programme, after which the BharatNet project got a big push. The implementation strategies for Phase II were modified and it was decided to lay new fibre from blocks up to the gram panchayats as there were some issues with BSNL’s fibre network. Further, it was decided that the new fibre would not be limited to being laid underground and options like aerial fibre, and radio and satellite connectivity would also be explored. The states were involved as key stakeholders in the implementation process.
In Phase II, the focus is on last-mile connectivity. To this end, we are looking at Wi-Fi and other broadband technologies. Operations and maintenance is also an integral part of all the contracts being signed with the implementing agencies. As per our assessment, roughly 530,000 km of fresh fibre needs to be rolled out under Phase II. As of now, eight states have come forward for the implementation of BharatNet Phase II.
We are also looking at private sector capability for the execution, maintenance and utilisation of the network for service delivery. We are exploring public-private partnership models under which we will offer our fibre network on lease to private telecommunications service providers. Incentivising private sector players through viability gap funding, allowing them to lay their fibre or shift our equipment, and providing right of way are some of the initiatives being considered. Going forward, we plan to enable the private sector to take on a bigger role in making the BharatNet project a success.
“We are also looking at private sector capability for the execution, maintenance and utilisation of the network for service delivery.”