Towards a new India: Last-mile vision a stimulus for rural data demand

Experts believe the PM’s vision will mean a surge in data demand—a huge positive for the industry. Unlike in the earlier schemes, last mile will be a focus now by connecting villages
What started as the National Optical Fibre Network during the UPA government in 2011, got a new identity in 2014—BharatNet. The vision remained the same: to connect over 250,000 gram panchayats across the country. Now, a fresh target has been set with Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing in his recent Independence Day speech that 600,000 villages will get optical fibre connectivity in 1,000 days.

Experts believe the PM’s vision will mean a surge in data demand—a huge positive for the industry. Unlike in the earlier schemes, last mile will be a focus now by connecting villages.    

"The volume surge in data consumption has pushed India 2-3 years in to the future. The demand uptick in rural is positive as data usage spiraled 2x in the past months. The momentum is here to stay. By 2025, India’s overall data consumption is expected to double and move northward of 25 GB/user/month. Investing in digital infrastructure is now as important as developing the physical infrastructure," Prashant Singhal, Emerging Markets - Technology, Media & Entertainment and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader at EY, said.

The private sector is bullish about the idea.

It’s the right time to do it as the shift to digital becomes permanent, according to Anand Agarwal, Group CEO, Sterlite Technologies Ltd. ‘’It will enable access to essential applications like e-education, e-health, and e-governance. As rural India becomes informed and educated, more jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities will get created. All of it will lead to economic growth and development in the region," Agarwal said.

The programme, being seen as the biggest rural telecom project, is aimed at providing broadband connectivity to every nook and corner of the country by using optical fibre.
As Professor N K Goyal, chairman emeritus, Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India (TEMA), points out, large parts of rural India have been waiting for basic telecom connectivity for the last 70 years.  If the government wants to realise its plans in the next 1000 days, it must stipulate the existing domestically manufactured available 2G or 3G technology for last mile connectivity, he says. ‘’This will also help government's Make in India vision and help achieve last mile connectivity quickly."

Reports received by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) from 344 operators peg the  broadband subscriber numbers at 683.77 million as of end of May with top five service providers (including Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd) cornering  98.93 per cent market share.
According to Goyal, India has enough domestic capability in manufacturing optic fibre but depends on foreign companies on 4G equipment. Now, Indian companies are expected to come up with capabilities within the next 12-18 months.

In fact, the optical fibre project forms core of the Union government’s Digital India initiative, which plans to connect citizens digitally and bridge the digital divide  between the rural and urban India.

Bharat Broadband Network (BBNL) is a special purpose vehicle, set up by the government under the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for management, establishment, and operation of BharatNet. It was incorporated in 2012 as a PSU under the Companies Act.

The idea behind this initiative is a vision to provide a minimum of 100 Mbps bandwidth at each gram panchayat so that online services including e-governance, e-learning, e-banking, e-commerce and e-health services can be accessed by everyone in rural India.

The second phase of the ambitious project was approved by the Union Cabinet in January. Of the total budget of Rs 42,068 crore, for the programme, Rs 18,792 crore will be earmarked for the second phase of the plan.

Based on the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) panel report of 2015, the implementation of the second phase will be done through the state model, private sector model, and CPSU model. This essentially means it will include an optimum mix of channels for connectivity (optical fibre cables, radio and satellites), and also provide last-mile connectivity through Wi-Fi or similar technology to ensure that internet is available at home and office.

About eight states have opted for the state-led model while the satellite model is being implemented mostly in states with difficult terrain.

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