The first phase of the Indian government’s BharatNet programme has been successfully completed, said Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha during a media interaction yesterday. As part of Phase 1, over 100K gram panchayats (GPs) have been connected with optical fibre.
Sinha further stated that the second phase of BharatNet, which aims to install Internet infrastructure in up to 150K gram panchayats, will be completed before time by December 2018.
He said, “101.3K gram panchayats (village blocks) are service-ready as of December 28, 2017, while the second phase has already been initiated with eight states doing on their own. Rural India will get the benefit of technology advancement and it (BharatNet) will facilitate direct and indirect employment opportunities for many, and can contribute to the inclusive growth of India.”
According to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), more than 255K km of optical fibre has been installed across several thousand gram panchayats so far. For the uninitiated, BharatNet is an initiative that aims to provide Internet access to people in rural and semi-urban areas across the country by March 2019.
The development comes less than two months after it was reported that the Government of India was planning to offer $550.2 Mn (INR 3,600 Cr) subsidy to private telecom companies through viability gap funding, in a bid to connect gram panchayats via Internet as part of the second phase of BharatNet.
The proposal for offering a $550 Mn subsidy to telecom companies assisting the government in the BharatNet project was originally presented before the Union Cabinet in July 2017.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) was also reportedly in the process of partnering with state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand. To expedite the rollout of the second phase, the central government was looking to provide partial funding to the local governments of these states.
At the time, several telecom companies – including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio, among others – expressed interest in working with the government on last-mile connectivity.
As stated by Sinha yesterday, the collaboration between the DoT and telecom service providers was fruitful as the firms have committed to provide low-cost Internet access to around 70,000 village blocks across the country, using BharatNet’s optical fibre network.
To ensure timely completion of Phase 2 of BharatNet, the government is also gearing up to offering financial incentives to good performers, the Minister revealed. Those missing deadlines, however, will be given disincentives.
According to sources, DoT Secretary Aruna Sundararajan and Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund Administrator Sanjay Singh have been asked to jointly decide how to incentive BharatNet stakeholders based on their performance.
The second phase of BharatNet, which is scheduled to complete by March 2019, has already started, Sundararajan stated recently. As part of Phase 2, state-owned BSNL floated its tenders in October 2017.
BharatNet: Bringing Internet Access To 250K Gram Panchayats
The BharatNet initiative (formerly known as the National Optical Fibre Network) was originally conceived in 2012, with the aim of creating Internet infrastructure in nearly 250K gram panchayats all over rural India. The project is being funded through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
Despite delays, the government managed to connect around 80,000 gram panchayats in 2016 through WiFi hotspots. Earlier this year, Communications Minister Manoj Sinha stated that the first phase of BharatNet, in which 100K gram panchayats were to be made Internet-ready, was scheduled for completion by the end of March.
The initial estimated cost of $3.2 Bn (INR 20,100 Cr) has increased more than 70% to $11.5 Bn (INR 72,000 Cr). In the 2017-18 Union Budget, the central government allocated another $1.6 Mn (INR 10 Cr) to the BharatNet project.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said, “By the end of 2017-18, high-speed broadband connectivity on optical fibre will be available in more than 150K Lakh gram panchayats, with WiFi hotspots and access to digital services at low tariffs.”
Phase 1 And Phase 2 Of BharatNet: An Overview
Phase 1 of BharatNet involved the installation of optical fibre connectivity in around 100K village panchayats. As part of the second phase, the Indian government is gearing up to expand the optical fibre network to over 2 Mn km by March 2019. The initial investment in the second phase stands at $5.1 Bn (INR 34,000 Cr).
Under the first phase, the government also set up more than 15,000 WiFi hotspots, of which around 11,000 are situated in rural areas and the remaining in semi-rural regions. Post the completion of the second phase, Sundararajan pointed out, India will have enough hotspots to bring Internet access to over 100 Mn people.
The second phase, which is slated to complete by March 2016, will entail the setting up of connection points for optical fibre in each panchayat. Unlike phase 1, the second phase of BharatNet will focus on the installation of a combination of underground fibre, aerial fibre, radio as well as satellite media. Once that’s been done, telecom carriers will be able to buy bandwidth from the government and sell it in rural areas.
The second phase of BharatNet will see the installation of optical fibre in Assam, Haryana, MP, Rajasthan, UP, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim.
India’s Internet-Using Population To Touch 1 Bn By 2020
In recent years, India has been witnessing a dramatic increase in Internet usage and data consumption, due to greater availability of technologies such as smartphones, broadband and mobile Internet. According to a study by Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) Association, for instance, India’s mobile using population is expected to cross the 1 Bn mark by 2020. The number of Internet users in India is currently around 450 Mn – 465 Mn; a significant increase from last year’s 432 Mn.
So far, the Indian government through governing bodies like DoT has played an integral part in bringing Internet connectivity to the masses. In August 2016, DoT-governed BSNL invested $1.1 Bn (INR 7,000 Cr) to erect 21,000 mobile towers, according to a report by ET. Later, in May 2017, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched three satellites in May with the aim of providing high-speed Internet in India.
During the same month, the BSNL signed MoUs with Facebook, MobiKwik and Disneyland India to commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on May 17. The move was perceived as an attempt on BSNL’s part to promote its Internet and value-added services.
Most recently, the Indian government announced plans to equip all existing railway stations with fast WiFi service under the ‘RailWire’ initiative. While the immediate goal is to install RailWire in 600 stations by March 2018, the government plans to extend the service to all stations across the country by March 2019 at an estimated cost of $110 Mn.
The BharatNet project is quite possibly the biggest initiative undertaken by the Indian government to bring the rural and semi-urban population under the digital umbrella. As per an ICRIER study, every 10% increase in Internet usage is responsible in driving the country’s GDP by 3.3%. Going by that estimate, the successful completion of BharatNet could add $68.7 Bn (INR 4,50,000 Cr) to the national GDP. Whether the second phase of BharatNet reaches completion by the end of this year, or suffers delays like Phase 1, remains to be seen.