As per latest estimates from the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of internet users in the country has surpassed 834 million as of June 2023, a 10.7 per cent increase from the previous year. Commendable government initiatives, such as the BharatNet project and the Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) programme, have played a key role in propelling the use of high speed broadband internet in a country with a huge data appetite. Through these initiatives, the internet has had a positive impact on the lives of millions of people. It has helped improve education, healthcare and economic opportunities, while also bridging the digital divide between urban and rural areas.
A look at the current status of the BharatNet and PM-WANI projects in India…
The BharatNet project is among the world’s largest rural telecommunications projects under execution. It will be implemented in three phases. The objective of Phase I is to provide broadband connectivity at the gram panchayat (GP) level by connecting block headquarters (BHQs) to GPs through the existing optical fibre cable (OFC) of central PSUs (CPSUs) such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel and Powergrid; and laying incremental fibre that is needed to bridge connectivity gaps with GPs.
In Phase I, by December 2017, over 100,000 GPs had been connected. Its scope was then expanded to cover 125,000 GPs, as approved by the cabinet in July 2017. As of mid-August 2023, 206,932 GPs have been connected and 653,990 km of OFC has been laid. In addition, 601,026 fibre-to-the-home connections have been commissioned, and 104,674 Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed to ensure last-mile connectivity. Reportedly, a total of 197,954 GPs have been made service-ready across Phases I and II.
Phase II envisages connecting approximately 142,000 GPs (this excludes BHQs and includes GPs connected over satellite). New OFC is to be installed from BHQs to GPs, and dedicated fibre providers will provide lifetime maintenance of the network for GPs.
The cabinet approved a modified strategy for Phase II, drawing on the experience from Phase I. This aligns BharatNet with the broader vision of “Digital India”. The new strategy is more flexible and envisions utilising an optimal mix of media (OFC, radio and satellite) for connecting GPs. Additionally, under Phase II, GPs may be connected through different implementing models such as a state-led model, a private sector model and a CPSU model.
The total funding for the first two phases, as approved by the cabinet in 2017, was Rs 420.68 billion (exclusive of GST, octroi and local taxes). Additional funds have been sanctioned and spent since, as the project expanded in scope.
The BharatNet project is among the world’s largest rural telecommunications projects under execution.
Currently, Phase II is at various stages of implementation across India. Various states are being covered under different models. The state-led model is being implemented in seven states, namely, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Telangana.
The CPSU-based model is being employed by BSNL in four states and union territories. These projects are at various stages of implementation. The private-sector model is being implemented in Punjab and Bihar. Further, connectivity by satellite is being separately implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) and BSNL. BSNL is implementing this initiative in 1,408 GPs and BBNL is implementing it in 3,753 GPs. Over 343,000 km of OFC has been laid for this task. The implementation process is under way in over 139,000 GPs, with work completed in over 73,000 GPs.
Meanwhile, Phase III will encompass upgrades to the network to meet future requirements. Ensuring 99 per cent uptime, high utilisation and financing necessary upgrades will be ongoing challenges for years to come in the operations and maintenance (O&M) of the network. Phase III commenced in July 2021, when the cabinet approved a revised strategy for the implementation (including connectivity with villages), upgradation, O&M, and utilisation of BharatNet in 16 states, covering approximately 361,000 villages (including 137,000 GPs), through the public-private partnership model with a viability gap funding of Rs 190 billion.
However, O&M in remote, rural areas presents acute problems such as challenging terrains and vast distances, poor and unreliable power supplies, theft risks, and weather-related damages. In addition, BBNL faces coordination challenges due to the need to work with multiple partners.
Recently, the Union Cabinet approved an additional outlay of Rs 1.39 trillion for the BharatNet project to provide last-mile optical fibre-based connectivity to all villages. This reaffirms policy commitment to the multi-year mega-project. Expenditure on BharatNet has already crossed approximately $8.5 billion. The project has connected over 197,000 villages through OFC, and it aims to connect all 640,000 villages and 250,000 GPs within the next 30 months.
The PM-WANI scheme was launched in December 2020 by the Department of Telecommunications with the goal of increasing the proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots. This was done to set up robust digital communications infrastructure in the country, especially in the rural areas. Under this initiative, public Wi-Fi networks will be set up by public data office (PDO) aggregators who will provide these services through PDOs. One of the key advantages of PM-WANI is the compelling business opportunity it offers to aggregators, as it eliminates the need for additional licensing fees. This, in turn, encourages the growth of local nano entrepreneurs who can establish Wi-Fi hotspots and offer internet access to others, augmenting their monthly earnings.
One of the central components of the PM-WANI scheme involves application providers. Their task is to develop an application for user registration, discover PM-WANI-compliant Wi-Fi hotspots in the proximity for internet access, and authenticate potential broadband users. Currently, there are 109 app providers across the nation, serving as the backbone of the PM-WANI scheme.
Meanwhile, the scheme has also garnered attention from start-ups and enterprises at the Wi-Fi Summit, where seven critical start-ups and enterprises engaged in PM-WANI shared various business models. These solutions ranged from unique roaming solutions and building innovative business models for PDO aggregators and PDOs to providing innovative agri-tech solutions.
Currently, 150,350 public Wi-Fi hotspots have been deployed across the country under the PM-WANI scheme. Delhi witnessed the highest proliferation of PDOs, with approximately 40,542 hotspots being set up. This was followed by Karnataka and Maharashtra with 18,394 and 15,489 actively working Wi-Fi hotspots respectively. Arunachal Pradesh has also seen a massive increase in the deployment of PM-WANI Wi-Fi hotspots, with the number increasing from 598 in July 2023 to 1,016 in September 2023.
On the flip side, there has been very little development in some union territories in India. While Lakshadweep has only one public Wi-Fi hotspot, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli do not have any public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Overall, the PM-WANI framework has the potential to revolutionise the way people access the internet in India. It is a major stride in the government’s efforts to provide universal internet access and boost the country’s digital economy.
One of the key advantages of PM-WANI is the compelling business opportunity it offers to aggregators, as it eliminates the need for additional licensing fees.
The way ahead
The future of internet proliferation in India remains bright. The government is steadfast in its commitment to provide universal internet access, and the private sector is heavily investing in developing new internet-based products and services. BharatNet and PM-WANI are crucial projects that have the potential to transform India. The government is dedicated to these projects and is working to overcome the challenges they face.