Views of Sarvesh Singh

“Working in the hinterland was not easy”

The BharatNet project 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 India Infrastructure conference, Sarvesh Singh spoke about the progress made under the project, the targets and implementation strategies, and opportunities 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 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country through optic fibre cable (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 was spent in taking policy decisions on technology and the implementation methodology. Three central public sector undertakings (CPSUs) – Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel Corporation of India Limited and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid) – were shortlisted and pilot projects undertaken with gigabit passive optical network (GPON) technology. Agreements were signed with states to provide free right of way (RoW). 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 the 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 work under Phase I was revised to about 125,000 GPs. Of these, 120,610 GPs have been commissioned so far. Of the three CPSUs involved in Phase I, BSNL has completed about 98 per cent of the work, RailTel about 68 per cent and Powergrid about 95 per cent of the work. In terms of GPs, BSNL is yet to complete work in about 1,500 GPs, Powergrid 500 GPs and RailTel 3,500 GPs. Meanwhile, about 21,555 GPs have been connected under Phase II so far. In terms of OFC deployment, a total of 443,000 km has been laid under both phases combined.

Phase I implementation – Experience and key learnings

Executing Phase I was a learning experience as several challenges came to the fore during 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. Finalisation of the vendors took time and supplies were therefore delayed. To meet the enormous requirement of OFC, the existing Telecom Engineering Centre 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 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 GPs, even after installation there was damage and theft of the equipment. As a result, services in several GPs became non-operational even after getting connected. There was no operation and maintenance (O&M) of OFC and GPON equipment. Under Phase I, central funds were approved only for creation of the network and no funds were sanctioned for O&M or network utilisation. It was only at the time of sanction of Phase II in July 2017 that for the first time the 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. Network utilisation remained poor in Phase I GPs. Poor network availability was both the cause and effect of poor utilisation. It was thought that utilisation would improve if the states were involved. This led to roping in of select states in the implementation of BharatNet Phase II.

Phase II implementation status – Targets and achievement

About 136,000 GPs will be connected under Phase II. Of these, work in around 50 per cent (67,759 GPs) has been 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 execution and the telco’s deteriorating financial condition, part of the work was offloaded and was decided to be taken up for execution through public-private partnerships. Currently, BSNL is responsible for carrying out work in approximately 25,000 GPs, which is about 19 per cent of the total work under Phase II. BBNL on its own also took up execution work in Phase II in Punjab and Bihar. The 7,724 GPs for which work is being executed by BBNL constitute about 6 per cent of the total Phase II work.

Currently, 22,115 GPs have been connected under Phase II. Significant progress has been made in the BBNL-executed states and the work is nearing completion. As for the eight states, in all, 9,822 GPs have been connected which is 14.5 per cent of the total work allocated under the 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 the other states, except Tamil Nadu, the work is at various stages of implementation. In Tamil Nadu, 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. It was soon 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, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. The work is being done by BSNL (1,407 GPs) and BBNL (4,868 GPs). Telecom Consultants India Limited is executing the work for BBNL.

Aerial fibre is faster to install and commission and is also relatively cheaper. Currently, the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have opted for 100 per cent aerial fibre, 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 (CSCs) for doing maintenance work as well as for the utilisation of networks by providing Wi-Fi and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections at the GP level. We are hopeful that CSCs with their vast network of village-level entrepreneurs would be a great asset in improving network uptime and utilisation.

So far, Wi-Fi hotspots have been provided in about 60,000 GPs. For some GPs, it is a single access point while for other GPs, five to eight access points have been provided. Thus, in all about 250,000 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 the CSCs, BSNL and other internet service providers. 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 previous financial year, we completed more than 112,000 km of OFC laying at the rate 9,000 km per month. But in the first quarter of this year, with the emergence of the pandemic, we could only do one-tenth of what we did in the corresponding period last year. Clearly, progress has dipped and we are not sure how long it will take to finally pick up pace.

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

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