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Digitally Connected Bharat – A Distant Dream?

Mountains are being moved to provide 100 Mbps broadband Internet connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats, constituting 640,000 villages. But it seems meeting the target of December 2018 is just not going to happen.

Mountains are being moved to provide 100 Mbps broadband Internet connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats, constituting 640,000 villages. But it seems meeting the target of December 2018 is just not going to happen.

India has a very large rural-urban digital divide. While urban India is almost completely covered, both through voice and Internet, rural India still suffers from inadequate connectivity with approximately 50,000 villages, which do not even have voice connectivity. Rural India has 250,000 village offices named as gram panchayats (GPs). Each GP serves roughly about 2.56 villages on an average, thus totaling approximately 640,000 villages. Connectivity in urban India is mostly provided by private entities. For these private operators, there is little incentive in extending their network to the rural areas, which involves the need to cover a large area with low population density, thus limiting return on investments, after having incurred high capital investments for setting up the infrastructure and high operational costs for mainly security and power.

Bridging the digital divide thus became the onus of the government that aims to digitally connect all of India’s villages and gram panchayats by broadband Internet connectivity is one such digital plan. According to this plan, by the year 2019, it has been envisaged that all 250,000 GPs in India will enjoy broadband connectivity. Within BharatNet, which is being implemented in two phases, point of presence (PoP) with optical connectivity at all GPs will be provided by 2019. This will enable key services like administration, education, health, banking, and agriculture in becoming efficient and transparent. It is also proposed to provide gram panchayat kiosks for rural India to access the Internet. Further, connectivity to individual households is expected to be established by local players under enabling employment and entrepreneurship options for village youth.

Progress So Far

OFC pipes have been laid in 101,578 GPs, optical fiber laid in 90,564 GPs, but the key is broadband connectivity. And that can happen only if electronics are connected too. For only 18,434 GPs, GPON is integrated and tested as on April 24, 2017. This is well past the deadline of providing 100 Mbps broadband connectivity to 100,000 GPs by the revised deadline of March 2017.

OFC cable supplies have come in from Sterlite Technologies, Paramount Wires and Cables Ltd., Vindhya Telelinks Ltd., Aksh Optifibre Ltd., Himachal Futuristic Communications Ltd., Finolex Cables Ltd., APAR Industries Ltd., Polycab Wires Private Ltd., UM Cables Ltd., and KEC International Ltd. However, ITI Ltd., Tejas Networks Ltd., and Larsen and Toubro Ltd. with a combined order book of Rs 425.25 crore need to get their act together. Their deliveries have not been made as per schedule and hence the delay.

After that, is major coordination, when international connectivity needs to be provided with domestic backbones, aggregation networks, and access networks (and inter-POP links interconnection integrated). The fulfillment of the end-purpose will only be achieved once the value-base supply chain of investing partners is formed. And each piece of network has its own cost structure, dynamics, lead time to implement, and augment during operations, and business viability. Standalone NOFN is akin to a hollow pipe with no bits and bytes to flow from either end and cannot result in BB penetration.

“This requires urgent action alongside BharatNet implementation, as part of the supply side is already delayed. Investments in dependencies and their implementation cannot be viewed sequentially in series but a parallel simultaneous engagement with partners. We have to begin with the end in mind,” says KK Minocha, Former DDG, Broadband USOF-Department of Telecommunications. He adds, “No doubt construction of a mammoth pan-India infra called BharatNet is a challenging task but let us also not forget that utilization, maintenance, and sustainability of pan-India BharatNet on a tough rural turf is much more challenging than implementation itself.”

Winding Back a Little

A parliamentary standing committee on information technology had expressed displeasure in December 2016 over lack of attention of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) toward funding the scheme. “Considering the fact that NOFN (national optic fiber network) project is one of the critical pillars in the context of the Digital India mission of the government, it need not be over emphasized that the Department (DoT) cannot afford any delay in implementation of the NOFN project for want of funds,” the committee chaired by MP Anurag Singh Thakur said in its 31st Standing Committee Report.

In the Union Budget presented on February 1, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated an additional Rs 10,000 crore to expand the project. The BharatNet project is funded under the USOF for providing telecom services in rural areas at subsidized rates.

A survey to assess whether present and potential institutional users in the GPs of BharatNet pilot phase, own and possess adequate capacity to use and access the Internet and to deliver services to the rural areas by think-tank LIRNEasia and IIT-Delhi indicated that demand pull at the moment is poor. It observed that use of Internet was low at 35 percent and use of BharatNet even lower at only 3 percent. 70 percent of the institutional users were not aware of BharatNet. And those who were aware did not know what exactly BharatNet is. The study advised that its benefits and awareness be increased for demand of the service to increase.

“Institutional users are pertinent as they would take the broadband from GPs to the individual consumers and households. The use of BharatNet is in single-digit, which is a challenge as well as an opportunity for BBNL and the government as more institutional users are required to experience the benefits of Internet for demonstration effects,” said P Vigneswara Ilavarasan of IIT Delhi, who led the survey.

Rohan Samarajiva, founding Chairman, LIRNEasia expressed concern on lack of significant middle-mile connections. While the existing network itself has issues, last-mile connectivity has been completely missed. The solution is to focus on the private sector and on competition in the last mile. First, the terms and conditions of access to the BharatNet middle-mile must be worked up in the form of legal documents in consultation with potential users. “Answers to questions such as: Who do we talk to when the link breaks? What priority do our maintenance requests receive? And what assurance of service quality is offered? must be given,” he says. The prices should cover only operational costs since the capital costs have been borne by Universal Service Obligation Fund. Surveys should be conducted in villages to document the existing demand at various price points and the results made available to private operators. Even after all this, if the existing operators drag their feet, specialized entities should be invited to bid to provide last-mile services in non- or under-served rural areas as resellers, with the door kept open for full licenses based on performance.

Planning for BharatNet Phase 2

IIT Bombay was invited to plan phase 2 of the project, where the remaining 150,000 GPs need to be provided 100 Mbps broadband connectivity by December 2018.

The IIT Bombay BharatNet planning tool was designed and enhanced for its functionality in order to generate fiber route along with wireless links as well as its feasibility for connectivity of Phase 2 GPs of BharatNet project. The tool takes into account the road data of India that facilitates fiber planning along the road based on GPON architecture. The tool also takes inputs of the optical line terminators (OLTs) present in each block for determining the fiber route from block headquarters to the GPs in the block. GPs, which are not connected through fiber, are then considered for alternate technologies such as 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi technology and satellite.

A thorough fiber link feasibility and wireless link feasibility is undertaken to design a feasible and stable network of fiber and wireless links. Various assumptions have been made for feasibility tests and network topology design.

Essence of the Report

The aim of this project is to provide Internet connectivity infrastructure to 150,000 GPs for which there has been no planning done as yet. It is also termed as backhaul planning. The backhaul network has high bandwidth requirements. Thus, the technology in designing the backhaul network should support the same.

The key steps are:

  • Design topology to decide which of the GPs should be fiber connected and which can be connected via wireless,
  • Propose the design parameters for the wireless links like tower heights, transmit power, antenna parameters, etc. Establish the reliability of the proposed fiber and wireless links,
  • Ensure that the throughput requirement at each GP is met, and
  • To estimate bill of quantity for fiber and wireless links enabling further creation of bill of materials.

The IIT Bombay BharatNet Planning tool is designed by IIT Bombay to assist decide the technology and the optimum network topology on the basis of distance, terrain, and population. This tool proposed fiber topology for GPs along with wireless and satellite links where necessary.

The tool primarily features the following:

Throughput requirement calculations. For each GP, the tool obtains its population from the census data by considering the populations for the GP village and the villages associated with the GP. From the population, the tool computes the throughput requirements for each GP. The throughput requirements are being used for planning both fiber and optical links.

Fiber and wireless link feasibility test and reliability test. The tool checks link feasibility of both fiber and wireless links, based on GP to GP route length, terrain profile, maximum tower height, population, and throughput demand of a GP. The reliability for wireless links is ensured by making sure that enough fade margin is accounted for to compensate potential losses due to various factors such as shadowing, equipment installation, and weather conditions.

Frequency reuse planning. To avoid interference among wireless links, frequency reuse planning has been carried out. In 5.8 GHz frequency band, there are eight channels of 80 MHz bandwidth. These channels can be used for data transmission in a region with no or minimal interference. Other physical solutions that are considered in the tool include use of directional antenna and positioning the antennas at different altitudes on a tower to avoid interference.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has advised the Government of India to implement BharatNet in the public-private-partnership (PPP) model and a bigger private sector role in speedily implementing the national broadband project. This is in the backdrop of its repeated failure to meet delivery timelines over the past three years and an over three-fold cost escalation to Rs 74,000 crore.

“The concessionaire or private company role in implementing BharatNet should include both deployment and implementation of optic fiber cable (OFC) network infrastructure as well as operating the network,” advised TRAI.

This is in sync with the consultation paper titled Delivering Broadband Quickly, when TRAI had defined the BOOT model as a form of concession, in which a public authority makes an agreement with a private company (read: concessionaire) to design, build, own, and operate a specific piece of infrastructure, such as a telecom network along with the right to earn income from facility for a pre-decided time period (concession period), and later transfers it back into a public ownership.

The regulator has suggested that concessionaires be picked up through a reverse-bidding process to determine minimum viability gap funding (VGF) sought for the concession, and the area of implementation be analogous with licensed service areas (LSAs) of the state/union territory, and they be entitled to revenue proceeds from dark fiber (read: unused fiber) and/or bandwidth. The use of reverse-bid process for determining lowest VGF sought would ensure that quantum of support from public funds is rational.

There is no denying that BharatNet is a very ambitious project. But if India has to leapfrog from its present 155th position to the world’s top five in digital connectivity within the next 5–6 years, as is the Digital India mission, a major shake up is imminent.

“Today (Apr 28, 2017) 226,446 km of pipe has been laid, 204,322 km cable has been laid, 90,564 gram panchayats have been covered and by 30th April, 100,000 gram panchayats will be covered by optical fiber. GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) has been lit in 18,434 gram panchayats and we will complete the target in three months. By December 2018, we will cover all 250,000 gram panchayats. The second phase’s strategy, which will include underground, overhead, radio, and satellite, is different from the first phase, where it was all underground. Overall, the second phase should tentatively cost around Rs 40,000 crore. We are taking it to the Cabinet next week.”

Manoj Sinha
Minister of Communication
Government of India

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