Meeting Modi's 1,000-day challenge to have optical fibre cable in villages

Speeding up connectivity in villages will need help of private telecom.
The target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech to connect every village in the country with optical fibre cable (OFC) in 1,000 days is quite possible. But to achieve it, the cables would have to be laid at nearly 3.6 times the current speed: up from the existing average of 350 km a day to over 1,251 km a day.

It is a challenging jump and that is where the weakness of BharatNet as a pure play government programme could show up. BharatNet is the name of the umbrella project under which the government aims to connect every village digitally by 2024. The government has so far financed the project mostly through Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a state-owned company set up in 2012 for the purpose. The new target is stiff.

Until now, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) planned to reach the 250,000 gram panchayats by March 2024 and then secure last-mile connectivity, with a total of 700,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to cover India’s 600,000-odd villages by adding two to five Wi-Fi hotspots per gram panchayat and a minimum of one Wi-Fi hotspot per village.

DoT had secured a Union cabinet approval for spending Rs 42,068 crore on the project. The cables have so far reached 154,999 gram panchayats, according to BBNL data. But now, BharatNet will not only have to reach the remaining nearly 100,000 gram panchayats, it will also have to reach deeper to link all of the country’s villages.

To meet the original target of connecting the remaining gram panchayats, the government would have had to spend another Rs 30,000 crore or so in the next three years. At Rs 10,000 crore of additional spending per year, it was not much of a pressure on the DoT’s finances.
The scope of the challenge becomes obvious from a perusal of DoT’s successive annual reports. Now it will not only need a larger budget but it will also need to lay the cables at a much faster pace. For this, it will need to rope in private companies on a public-private partnership model, as was done for the road sector.

In 2016-17, the pace of laying the OFC cables was 168 km per day. Data from reports by the Ministry of Communications indicates that 2.8 km of OFC needs to be laid to reach every successive village. The department had reached 65,000 village panchayats by the end of December 2016. This speed of laying the cables increased to about 350 km per day by June 2020. In all, 445,304 km of the OFC network has been laid till now (BBNL website).

To reach the remaining 450,000 villages within the next 1,000 days, the government will need to lay another 1,251,000 km, assuming the average distance of 2.8 km between the villages. Since it can be safely assumed that villages near the cities would have already been covered, the distance between the remaining villages would actually be more. Even if that weren’t the case, the average speed of laying the cables will need to increase to about 1,251 km per day.
Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier) Director Rajat Kathuria, who has studied the Indian telecom sector for decades, reiterates that it is important to bring in the private sector to meet the new targets — something the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has also batted for. According to a LiveMint report, TRAI has urged the government to allow private players to run the project, principally because of concerns over poor utilisation of the digital infrastructure built under BharatNet. Taken to its logical conclusion, this could mean disbanding BBNL, too.

While Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement, the revised game plan means he and DoT Secretary Anshu Prakash will have to go back to the drawing board.

The BharatNet programme seeks to make the National Broadband Mission operational. The mission was launched on December 17 last year with a vision to fast-track the growth of digital communications infrastructure, bridge the digital divide, facilitate digital empowerment and inclusion, and provide affordable and universal broadband access to all villages by 2022. While some of that can be made possible by wireless network, steady connections at remote villages, as Modi pointed out, need wires to reach there.

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