More media in India are picking up on the importance of what we’ve learned about BharatNet. Voice and Data used information from the BharatNet study for a piece published on April 06, 2017. BharatNet (formally the National Optic Fibre Network) was meant to provide broadband internet to rural villages in India. While the existing network itself has issues, last-mile connectivity has been completely missed. LIRNEasia went in to look at the potential role of institutions to fill the gap, and found a serious lack of awareness and no significant middle-mile connections.
I am large, I contain multitudes. This is true, for sure, about India, on track to become the most populous nation in five years. India contains many visions and plans, not necessarily congruent, about connecting citizens to the Internet. The Walt Whitman line surely applies to what happens in Indian ICT policy too. Sam Pitroda worked up a plan to do the job using state-owned enterprises.
Osama Manzar of Digital Empowerment Foundation has written an op ed on BharatNet, still being described by the unfortunate acronym NOFN. We have been writing about it since Sam Pitroda came up with the plan in 2012-13. What is sad is that the story has not changed much since 2013-14, despite governments and ministers changing. In Palla village of Dadri, the village head informed us that NOFN cables had been laid in the area 18 months ago, but there was still no set-up box or Wi-Fi tower. This is alarming because Ballabhgarh and Dadri are within a 50-km radius from Delhi.
A report published by Analysis Mason this April on “How to get a billion Indians online by 2020” explores different potential business models to connect digitally un served and under served Indians. As for their forecast, unique Internet users in India by 2020 will be 746 million. The authors suggest connecting the additional 254 million digitally un-served and under-served Internet users are important for the users to benefit from the multiple government initiatives such as MGNREGA, AADHAR and Digital India. As the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) backhaul is been rolled out in India, authors explore seven business models to provide last mile access using NOFN infrastructure. Operators/ ISP initiatives Promotional 3G/ 4G packs to drive discovery/ Experimentation Minimal speed free universal data access (64 kbps; 10MB/ day) Central/ State government initiatives Community or Government institution Wi-Fi (NOFN) Subsidized data packs for low income group segment USOF based WiFi access through reverse auction using NOFN Corporates and tech companies driven initiatives CSR based free WiFi access Use of innovative technologies/ solutions for access It explores the pros and cons of each of the above access models and compare them based on multiple parameters.
A recent report by TIE, summarized in Mint, echoes many of the conclusions we reached about the challenges of increasing Internet connectivity in India, with emphasis on the bottom of the pyramid. It is important that Bharat Broadband Network stays at the backhaul level and does not seek to directly provide access services to end users. This is not only to safeguard the principle that all access providers should have non-discriminatory, cost-oriented access to the backhaul but also to ensure that the NOFN rollout does not slow down any further. It is silly to ask a bunch of bureaucrats to market Internet access. Private operators are not interested in providing access at the ends of the NOFN wire for various reasons.
I thought that the Government of India finally solved the problem of getting rid of the universal service fund money that kept coming in. Sam Pitroda gave them the solution with NOFN, that was supposed to shift the money to BSNL and other government entities. And the money was given for little result. But the inflows were just too much. Now the accumulated balance is over USD 6 billion.
In partnership with Ford Foundation, LIRNEasia is working on a project on ‘Facilitating and enriching policy discourse on improving broadband access by the poor‘. This work is expected to result in greater awareness of practices and innovations in the region on increasing broadband penetration. As part of this project, a research was undertaken by Nalini Srinivasan and P Vigneswara Ilavarasan on National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) in India. This research was published in Economic and Political weekly last week. The abstract of the published paper is as follows: The National Optical Fibre Network is being implemented largely by public sector organisations in the country.
We predicted this would happen if BSNL continued to be in the driver’s seat. In what could be another blow to the broadband dreams of millions, the deadline for rolling out national optical fiber network (NOFN) across all 2.5 lakh village panchayats has been extended by two years by 2018, according to sources close to the government. “The project will be now completed by 2018, instead of 2016,” the sources said. The national Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), which will play a crucial role in government’s Digital India program, was initiated in 2011 with an aim to provide broadband connectivity to over two lakh (200,000) gram panchayats of India at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore ($4 billion).
Indian Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar said that NOFN India is to be revised and renamed as BharatNet. The revised road map will emphasis the participation of states. Only 20,000 village panchayats were been given broadband connectivity by march 2015 although the target was 50,000. This proposed project is to be completed by December 2017. See here for more information.
The Indian government has finally renamed its National Optic Fiber Network (NOFN) project as BharatNet. This belated re-branding is a good move, since the acronym was susceptible to distortion – “No fiber network.” Nevertheless, BharatNet aims to connect 250,000 villages and small towns (Gram Panchayats) via 600,000km of optical fiber network to provide broadband. Prime Minister Mr. Modi has formed a committee to “analyze the structure” of this INR720.
Modi Seeks Telecom Ministry to Speed Up Broadband Project http://t.co/Iz433L5HJ0 pic.twitter.com/6VvpnnVs65 — New Indian Express (@NewIndianXpress) February 8, 2015 When I saw the tweet, I thought Modi was going to takeover the telecom portfolio. Only to find it was a bad headline that had then crept into a misleading tweet.
In the design of India’s broadband initiative, it was said that one thing was non-negotiable: the work had to be done by state-owned enterprises. Knowledgeable people advised the government that this would slow down implementation. And so it happened. Now the new Minister is hiring 10 CIOs to push implementation (including much of the eco system), setting realistic time targets and upping the spend from USD 7 billion to USD 17 billion. And taking all the credit, as is customary.
Many new issues worth further exploration emerged at the Expert Forum we concluded in New Delhi yesterday. One thing that was stated by officials was that the private sector was not stepping up to purchase the capacity offered by the National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN). Unlike in other countries, the access offer is not complete (supposedly, some tariffs have been published; with some serious discounts on offer). Imagine offering a service without full information on what to do if the NOFN fails. So, what comes first: NOFN access rules or the private operators lining up to buy capacity?
Government agencies are slow with procurement. This is common knowledge. Despite this common knowledge, the Telecom Minister and Mr Sam Pitroda decided to implement the NOFN using government entities only. It is also common practice for government entities to engage in the blame game, diverting precious effort from fixing the problems. All these not-unexpected things are happening right now.
Given the slow start and the pushing back of deadlines for the NOFN, one would have thought the BJP would bash the UPA on wasting public funds on fiber. But no, they want to do more. I guess Modi will claim he can get it done, without having to distinguish Congress and BJP policies. Read the article. The feel is that Modi and Reliance Jio are on the same wavelength.
A few weeks back, we wrote about how late the NOFN train was running. It appears the USOF has accepted the reality that it cannot accelerate from 60 to 25,000 in 12 months and is asking for a two-year delay. We all know why government programs have tight deadlines. It has to do with the electoral cycle. What Nilekani achieved, Pitroda could not.