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As BharatNet Flounders At Last Mile Connectivity, DoT Dials The Private Sector

The central government’s flagship BharatNet scheme, which aims to provide last mile internet connectivity to all villages and gram panchayats (GP), has missed the targets set for phase one. With connectivity targets set for phase two of the project also likely to be missed owing to current delays, the government is now attempting to rope in the private sector to cover up for the failings of implementing agencies, The Indian Express has learnt.

As against the initial target for connecting all the 2.50 lakh GPs by end of March 2019, only 1.18 lakh had been connected till then. “With an estimated Rs 19,516.37 crore having been invested in the scheme so far, the utilisation status of the infrastructure created under this so far is discouraging,” a senior official with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Of the 1.26 lakh GPs that have been made service ready so far, WiFi hotspots are functional only in 15,000. The plan to provide fibre to the home (FTTH) connectivity is operational only at 27,856 GPs till end-December, the official added.

To overcome the failings of nodal agencies involved in the implementation of the project, the Centre now plans to rope in the private sector and complete the phase one as well as phase two part of BharatNet under the public-private-partnership (PPP) model, the official said.

A meeting in this regard was held involving officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and Niti Aayog, where the government policy think tank suggested the PPP model.

A Cabinet note for the idea has been prepared, which will be put up for discussion soon, officials said.

Under the model, private sector will be invited to bid circle-wise for the BharatNet project and the maximum contract duration of the project is likely to be 25 years. The selection criteria for PSP will be their quote for viability gap funding, and the bidders will be expected to provide “on demand” internet connectivity with minimum speeds of 50 Mbps to at least five development institution in the area, the minutes of the meeting showed.

“The private service partner (PSP) will have the flexibility to re-locate the equipment installed at the BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) exchanges and gram panchayats. It would also have the flexibility to create/upgrade the network,” according to one of the officials present at the meeting.

In its defence, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) — the nodal agency for implementation of the project — has blamed the network architecture, the connectivity to old BSNL fibre in part of the network operation and maintenance through BSNL as some of the reasons which had held back optimal utilisation of the network. Queries sent to the DoT remained unanswered.

Though the Niti Aayog suggested the PPP model, it also flagged some likely challenges if the government opts to rope in private players.

One such challenge, the agency has said, is to ensure “affordable and fair pricing” which is likely to change if the private players have their way.

The financial reconciliation of work done so far under phase one of BharatNet, which is pending as final documents from central public sector units have not been received so far, is also likely to be a challenge, according to the presentation made in the meeting. The Indian Express has seen a copy of the presentation made.

Apart from these, the government think tank is learnt to have warned about the change in the outlook towards BharatNet, which, when envisaged, was mooted as a “national asset with non-discriminatory access to all service providers”.

“The handling of Right of Way (RoW) for enhanced architecture and newly created network, along with integration of phase one and two of BharatNet was also flagged as a challenge. We also have to find a solution to termination of ongoing work under the scheme and handing it over to the private sector,” an senior DoT official, present at the meeting said.

Under the BharatNet scheme, the Centre is for now providing free WiFi services to all villages and GPs till March 2020, post which Common Services Centres (CSCs) and village level entrepreneurs (VLEs) will be able to charge for the internet through a pre-paid coupon system.―Indian Express

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