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BharatNet: From ‘India’ to ‘Digital India’ – Current Status

BharatNet project

Ever since the Modi government has come to power, the thrust on digital connectivity has taken the centre stage. The programme BharatNet is being implemented to achieve this goal. Under BharatNet, the central government has laid the broadband infrastructure that is to be utilised by the Service Providers, States, Central Ministries to provide services to the citizens. The Phase I of the BharatNet project with an aim to connect 1 Lakh Gram Panchayats with optical fibre network has already been completed as was scheduled in December 2017.

A Comparison with the UPA Government

In order to understand how the Modi government pursued BharatNet to connect India at the grassroots level, one needs to compare the work with that of the previous UPA government. BharatNet was previously known as National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN). The Sonia Gandhi led UPA government approved the project in 2011.

In the graphs below, a comparison has been done between both the governments over a similar time frame of 3 years.

As shown in the graph above,

  • Under the UPA Government – Till May 31, 2014, the work of providing broadband was started in 4,918 GPs (Gram Panchayats) and only 358 km Optical Fibre Cable (OFC) was laid.
  • Under the NDA Government – As on December 31, 2017, greater push resulted into the laying of 2,54,895 km OFC covering 1,09,926 GPs.

Similarly, the sheer difference in the number of the GPs that have been made service ready under both the governments shows the commitment and seriousness of the present government towards realising the dream of digital India.

As shown in the graph above,

  • Under the UPA Government – Till May 31, 2014, only 59 GPs were made service ready.
  • Under the NDA Government – As on December 31, 2017, 1,01,370 GPs have been made service ready.

The above comparison clearly establishes the fact that there has been a greater push given by the Modi government towards ensuring that broadband services reaches to the farthest corners of the country.

The Contention of Naysayers

Completely ignoring the mammoth digital infrastructure put in place as explained above, a section of media is spreading a negative narrative about BharatNet. The argument of the naysayers can be summed up as below:

  • Just laying the Optical Fibre Cable does not serve the cause of digital India as the infrastructure should be used to reap the benefit.
  • Many Panchayats have connection on mere test basis, majority of the Panchayats don’t have commercial broadband.

All such arguments ignore the fact that, all the digital India efforts are work in progress. Even to think about the ‘commercial’ usage or to talk about reaping the benefit, one needs to have infrastructures in place first.

Let us see what the naysayer had said earlier too on two other transforming flagship schemes of the government.

Jan Dhan Yojana
  • Even when more than 33 crore people connected to banking through Jan Dhan Yojana, they asked what is the use of account without money? But, as it turned out, today Jan Dhan accounts have more than Rs 84,000 crore balance.
PM Ujjwala Yojana
  • The same argument put forward when more than 5 crore BPL women benefitted under Pradhan Mantri UJJWALA Yojana. The naysayers said the poor will not come for LPG refill. But a Rajyasabha reply in August 2018 said, nearly 80 % of PMUY beneficiaries who completed 1 year of connection release came back for the second refill.

Therefore, in the case of BharatNet too, what the Modi government did in the last four years is to successfully build this infrastructure in a war-footing manner. Now, there are measures to be taken to build on this momentum to further the cause of Digital India.

The government seems to be well aware of this issue as well, as it is focusing on making the states to have more connections from the BharatNet network. In fact, State Governments were assigned the custody of the GPON equipment at GP level and they have a big role in taking forward this project.

Service providers are being roped in to utilize the BharatNet infrastructure to provide services. BBNL and States are to ensure that the network access is provided to all service providers through non-discriminatory access for utilisation of this national asset.

How Things have Changed After BharatNet?

BhartNet infrastructure is not resting idle. See some examples where it is already helping the common people.

  • CSCs (Common Service Centre) have installed Wi-Fi Hotspots at 6,000 GPs wherein services are regularly used by 1 Million+ users, consuming 38,000 GB of data each month from this network. Additionally, Wi-Fi Hotspots has been installed at another 24,000+ GPs by CSCs where services are to be initiated shortly.
  • Wi-Fi Network setup by BSNL at 1,800+ GPs being used by 60,000+ users (monthly consumption being around 25,000 GB)
  • In order to ensure 100% utilization of the BharatNet infrastructure, the government decided in May 2018 that 5 Wi-Fi Access Points would be setup at each GP. Of these, three Access Points shall be installed to provide connectivity to Key Government Development Institutions in rural areas (viz. 4.5 Lakh Schools, 1.8 Lakh Healthcare Centres, 1.3 Lakh Post Offices, 10,000 Police Stations), and 2 additional Access Points shall be installed at public places for wider public access.
Prospects of BharatNet in Commercial Sense

It is evident that any private players who are into communication can use the massive infrastructure laid by the BharatNet for larger public good. Already such prospects are on the card, some of which are mentioned below:

  • 14,000+ FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) connections provided across 18 States – measures being taken for expedited scale up.
  • State Wide Area Networks extended to around 3,400 GPs on BharatNet. SWAN Integration (Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and Puducherry)
  • Use by TSPs (The Service Providers)
    • Dark Fibre feasibility provided to more than 80% of the GPs requested by Reliance Jio
    • Feasibility provided to more than 70% of the GPs requested by Airtel
  • The utilisation of the network is planned through the State Governments and Service Providers. The service providers (TSP, ISP, Cable TV Service providers etc.) in order to utilise the Network are to provide Internet, Broadband TV, Mobile services, cable TV, FTTH, Wi-Fi services, etc. Towards this, special tariff has been put in place by BBNL for the bandwidth and dark fibre provisioning to service providers.
  • Tendering for the above Wi-Fi project has been initiated and adequate participation from bidders has been received. It is expected that the work to provide Wi-Fi network in most of the GPs of Phase I would be finalised in November 2018 and most of the work would be completed by March 2019. Under this project 50GB/ month of data is to be provided for each Government Institution and 10Mbps of speed is to be provided at Wi-Fi hotspots.

Even though the BharatNet project was started in 2011 as NOFN, the real beginning, towards providing the broadband services across the country, was made after 2014. In the two graphs in the story, the huge difference in the outcomes of two government speak for itself.

However, there have also been some attempts to even play down this huge success of the present government in laying the broadband infrastructure by saying that the functional internet has not yet reached the people. They, in saying so forget that Internet would not reach people until there is an infrastructure in place.

Therefore, the massive infrastructure already built under BharatNet makes the future of Digital India even brighter. With each passing day, India is inching closer to a digital future.