BharatNet: Digital India's biggest miss

Most of these subscribers — 97% of them — access the internet on a wireless connection, usually on their mobile phones
Last Updated 09 August 2021, 10:21 IST

Having already missed multiple deadlines, on June 30, the Union government approved a “revised implementation strategy” for the BharatNet project, a nationwide initiative with an approved expenditure of Rs 42,068 crore.

The latest phase of BharatNet would be implemented through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model in 16 states, pushing the outlay of the project to Rs 61,109 crore.

BharatNet started out as the National Optical Fibre Network in 2011, a “middle mile” project with a mandate to extend the existing optical cable fibre network from the Block Headquarters to 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats (GP) in the country.

So far, 60% (1.57 lakh) of GPs have been made service-ready. Just 34% (89,149) of these panchayats have been provided with a Fibre to the Home (FTTH) connection.

Once the GPs were provided with fibre optic connectivity, the government expected private players to lease bandwidth and provide internet services at the last mile — with speeds above 2 MBPS for as little as Rs 250.

However, in the decade since the BharatNet began, persistent delays and the unreliability of the Phase-I infrastructure, which is prone to faults and has poor maintenance, meant there were few private takers to lease the network and provide internet services.

This prompted the government to engage internet service providers on its own, which costs an average of Rs 1,500 per month at Gram Panchayats in Karnataka.

Meanwhile, the country has gone from having 65.33 million broadband subscribers in May 2014 to having close to 780.27 million broadband subscribers within seven years, in May 2021.

Most of these subscribers — 97% of them — access the internet on a wireless connection, usually on their mobile phones.

"What policymakers wanted to do was jumpstart India into the 21st century without going through the slow grind of building out our infrastructure," said Rohin Garg, of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

"Right now you are relying on data to provide internet, and now tariffs are lower, but in the long run you are going to end up with a duopoly of internet service providers," Garg added.

Garg said the absence of fixed broadband internet as envisioned by BharatNet was a huge missed opportunity when rolling out public service programmes.

What went wrong?

On July 17, the Congress flagged a 97-page preliminary report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on the BharatNet project.

Several issues were pointed out in the CAG report: the lack of a fair and transparent bidding process, huge delays in appointing full-time officials at the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) — the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) set up by the government to implement BharatNet.

Other issues were the absence of GIS mapping of fibre laid despite agreements being signed in 2012, poor Operation and Maintenance (O&M) by BSNL, lack of Service Level Agreements with CSC-SPV (the agency tasked with O&M for Phase-I of the project) which means no penalty could be imposed for not meeting the targets and poor quality of work undertaken by the CSC.

DH sent in queries to the government and BBNL through phone and email but there was no response at the time of going to press.

Rajesh Chharia, the president of the Internet Service Providers Association, says the government seems to have implemented the project with the intention of giving funds from the United Service Obligation Funds (USOF) only to public sector companies.

"Somewhere, there was no belief in private operators. Now, it has been 10 years but does every village in the country have a working broadband connection? Now, they are not able to justify the project," Chharia says.

White elephant

For BSNL, which was tasked with implementing close to 70% of BharatNet, the project came at a time of decline. The company had begun haemorrhaging telephone subscribers to more nimble private players — Airtel in the late noughties and Jio starting from 2016.

With BharatNet, the government has stated that the delay in surveying the GPs, Right of Way issues and pilot testing the technology model caused delays in the project.

Several industry experts and organisations DH spoke to mentioned that the persistent delay in BharatNet's implementation has meant the technology used is already outdated.

"We are 10 years late in developing a rural network," says K S Rao, CEO of Network Services and Software Business at STL Tech.

For instance, the Phase-I of the project envisioned a linear fibre-optic network, incrementally connecting the existing fibre to the GPs. This meant that with any disruption or faults in the fibre (which invariably occur) there would be no internet at the other end.

A senior official at BBNL involved with the project said that BSNL's existing network at the Block level, which they extended to the GPs under BharatNet, was itself deteriorating, further causing problems.

Other technical issues — excessive downtime of Optical Network Terminations (ONTs), or improper implementation of the Fibre Fault Localisation System — has also frustrated officials and users alike.

The model adopted by BharatNet — choosing CPSUs for rolling out the project, without involving the state government — seems to have affected the pace of the project implementation.

State-led models

"I used to have tears in my eyes at the end of each day," said Dharmendra Sharma, CGM and Gujarat State Head at BBNL, describing his experience of implementing Phase-I of the project in Gujarat.

Gujarat, along with other states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana went ahead with the state-led model of implementing the project and set up SPVs of their own.

Under Phase-II, many of them fought to implement a ring-based fibre optic network, so internet services aren't disrupted if there is a fault in the line.

"The whole network architecture and backhaul, right from the state data centre to the GP, is our own. There is no dependency on BSNL," Sharma said.

"Unlike other states, our milestones for paying the implementing agency are not based on trenching or pulling of the cable but on GPs receiving internet," he added.

No maintenance, poor connectivity

The Union government claims that over 6,086 GPs in Karnataka are service-ready. The CSC-SPV, through a subsidiary called CSC-Choupal, has received approval to provide WiFi services in 5,302 Gram Panchayats in the state.

However, a senior official in the Department of E-Governance in Karnataka said that there are just 2,216 active WiFi connections provided under this scheme, while the others are managing their work using mobile data or other internet service providers.

“There is no GP without internet connection. The major issue is maintenance. The BBNL and BSNL officials have not been very efficient from their side," the official said.

"We have also raised the issue with the Development Commissioner that we would like better maintenance at the grassroots level. The discussions are on at the highest level," the official added.

An investigation by DH, where Panchayat officials and elected members in over 30 Gram Panchayats across the state were contacted revealed the frequent line faults, excessive downtime and lack of response to maintenance calls to be the primary issues.

A couple of panchayats said they had disconnected the line as far back as four years ago because the internet was slow and non-functional most of the time. Officials here were using mobile data or wireless USB dongles of private ISP players to carry on their work.

The current Public Private Partnership (PPP) Model makes the private concessionaire responsible for implementing all aspects of the project from end-to-end, including maintaining and operating it for 30 years, which is in line with what state-led models have done.

The provision of good end-to-end infrastructure could also stoke interest from private players for bandwidth, which was largely missing in the earlier model.

While industry players are largely positive about the move, they do sound a cautionary note.

The task of maintaining the existing network, the steep deadline of August 2023 — which one BBNL official termed "a bit too ambitious" — and unresolved issues with Right of Way are other concerns raised by private players.

While welcoming the government's latest decision on BharatNet, K S Rao said that given there is no proven record for such a large-scale PPP model in the telecom sector in any country, there might be many firsts.

“The investments we have today may not be sufficient to create a fully futuristic carrier-grade network. You can somehow fulfil the current requirements of this PPP model by investing in a basic network. If you are looking at creating a digital broadband highway which can actually enable rural citizens to empower their life, the network quality and architecture has to be more advanced," K S Rao said.

(Published 31 July 2021, 19:15 IST)

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