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Paving digital roads to Gramin Bharat

In the modern era, reliable and affordable internet access has become a prerequisite for progress in areas like economic advancement, education, healthcare, and societal development.

However, India, a nation of contrasts with the world’s largest population, is grappling with a substantial digital divide. This divide is most pronounced in remote and underserved regions due to the slow expansion of high-speed wired broadband infrastructure.

The digital disparity in India is evident across multiple aspects – access to digital infrastructure, affordability, digital literacy, and internet utilization. Urban areas enjoy a commendable 67 percent internet penetration, whereas rural areas lag significantly with only 31 percent, highlighting a significant rural-urban gap. This divide has detrimental effects on various sectors, impeding economic growth.

The limited internet availability in rural settings poses obstacles to the growth of e-commerce and limits market access. Unequal access to digital resources continues to perpetuate educational inequalities, depriving remote students of opportunities.

The agricultural sector faces setbacks in accessing critical information and modern farming techniques, affecting growth and integration into markets. Moreover, healthcare services, including telemedicine and online platforms, remain restricted in rural zones, exacerbating healthcare discrepancies.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, and job prospects also suffer due to this divide. Bridging this gap by enhancing connectivity, digital literacy, and affordability can unlock latent growth potential, foster economic progress, and establish an inclusive digital society.
It is noteworthy that the internet economy contributed around USD 537.4 billion to India’s GDP. A study by the World Bank underscores the correlation between broadband penetration and GDP growth, with every 10 percent increase leading to a 1.38-percent boost in developing economies like India.

The transformative impact of digital inclusion is evident in successful models from the developed nations. For example, South Korea’s robust digital infrastructure and emphasis on digital literacy have yielded impressive results. With an internet penetration rate of 97.57 percent, South Korea stands as a global exemplar of a sophisticated digital economy.

In the United States, efforts to ensure digital inclusion have played a pivotal role in driving economic expansion. The digital economy constitutes a significant portion of the overall GDP, contributing approximately 10.5 percent (USD 2.4 trillion) to the total GDP of USD 22.99 trillion in 2021, as reported by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Recognizing the urgency of closing the digital divide, the Indian government has launched various initiatives to promote digital inclusion. Among these, a standout project is BharatNet, a transformative endeavor aimed at connecting all village panchayats in India through high-speed optical fiber network.

BharatNet’s implementation has taken place in several phases, aiming for comprehensive coverage across the nation. According to official records, BharatNet Phase-I and Phase-II have successfully linked over 1.94 lakh gram panchayats (villages) with high-speed internet access. However, challenges persist in these phases, particularly where the Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) was responsible for implementation. The usage rates are notably low, evident from the establishment of only 591,894 FTTH (fiber-to-the-home) connections.

A significant hurdle faced by BBNL was its lack of information about the location and quality of their fiber network. Incorporating a reliable GIS-based (geographic information system) fiber inventory system from the outset could have saved substantial time and money. This deficiency in infrastructure contributed to the failure of the public-private partnership model for BBNL, as potential bidders did not propose GIS solutions. On the contrary, state implementing agencies like GGFNL, which embraced a robust GIS system for BharatNet, have reaped benefits like enhanced operational efficiency and improved customer engagement.

BharatNet Phase-III, the forthcoming initiative, is dedicated to expanding broadband connectivity to the remaining gram panchayats, with the aim of reaching 2.5 lakh gram panchayats nationwide. The success of this ambitious project hinges on the government’s commitment to investing in effective GIS-based inventory solutions capable of real-time updates. Without this, there is a risk of facing similar challenges as encountered in Phase-I and Phase-II.

In a bid to extend broadband access beyond BharatNet, the government plans to utilize Wi-Fi hotspots. The Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) framework, approved in December 2020, seeks to proliferate broadband through public Wi-Fi networks. This strategy aligns with TRAI’s 2017 recommendations, and involves entities like public data offices (PDOs), public data office aggregators (PDOAs), app providers, and a central registry.

PDOs operate PM-WANI compliant Wi-Fi hotspots, offering last-mile connectivity, and procuring internet bandwidth to deliver broadband services. The PDOA manages revenue collection by selling coupons to users, subsequently sharing this income with PDOs based on access point usage.

A limitation of this scheme is its reliance on fixed-location PDOs for high-speed internet access. Challenges also arise from unlicensed band Wi-Fi operation, especially regarding interference-free coverage over large areas. According to official records, although 104,674 gram panchayats have Wi-Fi hotspots, only a small fraction of 6336 hotspots is operational.

While PM-WANI strives for affordable village-level Wi-Fi, alternative methods should be explored for widespread broadband access. Utilizing BharatNet OFC, 4G small cell solar-operated BTSs (base transceiver stations) with 2W or 5W capabilities could connect homes. Government PSU (public sector undertaking) BSNL, private telecom service providers (TSPs), or local entrepreneurs could collaborate to set up these cells, aligned with PM-WANI goals. The Department of Telecommunications (DOT) can facilitate revenue-sharing mechanisms and incentivize local participation.

Despite the government’s BharatNet initiative, collaboration between the public and the private sector remains pivotal to bridge India’s digital divide, and enable digital inclusion. Private operators can invest in network infrastructure, introduce innovative technologies, and offer affordable data plans, ensuring internet access is accessible across various socio-economic strata.

It is crucial to recognize that the mere installation of hardware is not sufficient to enhance the outreach. Instead, technological software solutions should serve as catalysts in narrowing the digital divide and propelling economic growth.

At the heart of digital infrastructure, the optical fiber network acts as both the digital backbone and access connectivity for Rural Bharat. To meet the demands of emerging technologies like 5G networks, over 35 lakh kilometers of fiberization is required, particularly to support 5G backhaul for linking small cell sites. Swift and effective deployment of the fiber network is pivotal for the success of the Digital India program and the rollout of 5G. Innovative technological solutions, including GIS-based fiber planning, inventory management, and workforce management, can expedite the rollout of the fiber network. These solutions offer an open, adaptable geospatial environment that assists service providers in planning, designing, and maintaining their fiber networks.

Tools for fiber management, network monitoring systems, and geographic information system (GIS) solutions optimize resource allocation, facilitate efficient network maintenance, and elevate operational efficiency.

Leading technology organizations like Lepton Software, Cyient, and TCS offer GIS-based fiber lifecycle management solutions to extend broadband coverage and minimize the digital divide.

This data enables telecom operators to prioritize investments, allocate resources effectively, and streamline the deployment of fiber optic networks. By making resource allocation decisions based on spatial insights, the process of extending connectivity to remote and underserved areas becomes more efficient and cost-effective.

Additionally, forging strategic partnerships with local cable operators (LCOs) will play a pivotal role in broadening connectivity. Operators like Jio and Airtel have effectively brought broadband services to underserved regions, empowering local entrepreneurs, and invigorating economic development.

These collaborations among telecommunications companies, local operators, and technology firms amplify connectivity, spur entrepreneurship, and contribute to economic growth, job creation, and enhanced digital inclusion in India.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that reducing the digital divide is imperative for India’s economic advancement and comprehensive progress. The government’s initiatives, coupled with cooperative endeavors involving both public and private entities, will propel the nation closer to realizing the digital inclusion.

However, there is still substantial work to be done, particularly in the domain of technological solutions, to expedite the fulfillment of the Digital India vision. By embracing robust technological software solutions, accentuating digital literacy, and enacting the recommended policies, India can bridge the digital gap and unleash its vast economic potential.

The article is authored by Sanjeev Kakkar, a Telecom Expert. He has held various CXO level positions in technology companies. Views expressed are personal.

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