Connecting rural India: fibre optics

Over the past few years, there’s been a tremendous expansion of Internet access in India. Life has completely changed due to connectivity and high-speed data availability.

A DoT report said that as on April 30 this year, “190% increase in data consumption has been recorded during the last six months in rural areas where broadband Internet is provided through WiFi hotspots running on BharatNet Infrastructure.” 

World population review puts India’s rural population at 67%. Based on a report released at the India Mobile Congress 2017, while overall Internet penetration in India is 33%, it is only 16% in the rural areas.

Earlier, rural connectivity was mainly through a combination of unreliable microwave links, legacy copper cabling and some percentage of fibre connectivity restricting the digital transformation of India. The major issue with the first two is that the signal degrades with distance and as we move to the least dense areas, the connectivity is not at all reliable. Therefore, a new fibre-based connectivity network was needed to provide reliability and push internet inclusiveness.

There are several advantages of optical fibre for connectivity:

• Less degradation of signal over longer distance

• Higher data carrying capacity

• Suitable for carrying digital signals

• Cheaper solution as compared to copper connectivity

• Less volume of cables as compared to copper connectivity

Up until five years ago, no operator was willing to bet on rural connectivity fearing loss of revenue. Similarly, extending broadband connectivity didn’t make any business sense for telecom companies.

So what changed during these years? The answer is two major initiatives of the Telecom Department: National Optical Fibre Network or BharatNet project and the push for digital connectivity. The purpose of BharatNet was providing fibre connectivity to all villages, with large mile connectivity to be provided by Wi-Fi or Telecom networks leveraging the available high bandwidth fibre backbone.

Now, there was a need to put dedicated fibre to provide latest telecom offerings. As of date, 2,78,710 km of fibre has been laid while around 1,000 km of cable is being laid every week (according to BBNL website).

Meanwhile, the success of the project has motivated the telecom department to provide last mile connectivity as well. Now BharatNet has planned to extend Wi-Fi with the name “Wifi Choupal”. So far, more than 7,000 villages have received the service. The initial target has now been increased to include over 30,000 villages, and Bharti Airtel has committed to partner with BharatNet to provide broadband connectivity while others are expected to tread similar lines. Earlier, the plan was to provide single fibre to all villages which is now under review to provide upto 6F connectivity. 

In addition to the fibre deployment push, further subsidies were given to operators willing to extend last mile connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots. So, in its second phase, apart from dropping fibre to villages,fibre-to-home services are also being planned on the existing BharatNet infrastructure — dedicated fibre to each home which can further change the way how we imagine rural India.

Availability of high bandwidth fibre fuelled mobile and internet connectivity. While the world moved from 2G to 3G to 4G and is gearing towards 5G, lack of fibre infrastructure kept a check on India’s ambitions. But now, operators can lease the existing fibre backhaul for their mobile site providing high bandwidth even on wireless connectivity for last-mile communication.

Reality of connectivity

• Google’s Internet Saathi programme in association with Tata Trusts is reducing the digital literacy gap by training women as Saathis

• Bringing government data regarding farming, health etc. to each Panchayat and thus more accessible

• Improving literacy by filling the gaps through Internet, when it’s hard to find rural school teachers in India

• Rural population is as connected as its urban counterpart with news, latest apps for payment, m-Health apps, online shopping, government schemes etc

This growth of digital assets will present India with many unique opportunities. Digital literacy in smaller towns and villages can create employment in sectors such as business process outsourcing (BPO), retail, IT, telecom, financial services, etc, and could also be drivers for setting up various industries in an as yet untapped market.

Connectivity is seen as the only force which can bridge the divide between rural and urban India and optical fibre could be the missing link in that equation.

(The writer is Senior Vice President, Citadel Intelligent Systems Ltd)

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