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BharatNet has missed 3 deadlines, while costs have doubled

The BharatNet project, which aims to deploy high-speed optical fibre cables across rural areas of the country has now reached 100,000 gram panchayats, as per Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL’s) website. This is up from a reach of 80,000 gram pachayats as reported in November 2016. BBNL is a state owned entity which was commissioned to lay down fibre cables and equipment across India.

However, BBNL has missed its deadline of connecting 250,000 villages by 2016. In an agreement [pdf] made in 2014 between BBNL and Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF)—a special fund set up by the government for providing subsidised telecom services—BharatNet target was to reach 250,000 gram panchayats within two years (2016). Note that BharatNet was rebranded from its initial name National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) in April.

List of missed deadlines

The project is now pending to cover 150,000 villages and had a three phase roll-out plan, but missed targets multiple times. We have mapped them out:

  • Missed 250K villages deadline in 2016: As pointed out earlier, USOF mentions in this 2014 agreement with BBNL that the plan was to connect 250K villages within two years’ time (2016).
  • Missed 100K villages by 2015: The project was originally slated to hit 100,000 villages by 2015 in the first phase. But the target was instead halved to 50,000 by 2016.
  • Missed 250K villages by March 2017: USOF also said in 2014, that it expects the three-phase broadband project plan to be concluded by March 2017. But clearly, that isn’t the case.
  • Final deadline moved to December 2018: As per this Business Standard report, the rest of the phases (150K villages) will be met only by December 2018.

Costs have doubled

BBNL receives funds from USOF, and according to the same Business Standard report, the total cost including last-mile connectivity and maintenance costs is revised to Rs 42,068 crore, up from the initial estimate of Rs 20,000 crore. However, it is not clear how much funding will be covered by the USOF for the BharatNet project. Since inception in April 2002, USOF disbursed Rs 37314 crore for various projects up till 2016 and still has Rs 48537.33 crore that can be allocated for future projects.

USOF also funds BSNL. In September USOF allocated a subsidy amount of Rs 1,250 crore to BSNL for its subsidised rural broadband services at rates starting from Rs 99, Rs 150, Rs 350 up till Rs 999. BSNL also has access to Rs 940 crore for installing 25,000 WiFi hotspots.

WiFi projects under BharatNet to be completed alongside by Dec ‘18

In a Rajya Sabha reply in April, Communication Minister Manoj Sinha said that BharatNet infrastructure will also be used to set up WiFi hotspots across all connected villages by December 2018. But these WiFi hotspots will only be set up after a successful deployment of fibre cables under the BharatNet Scheme. The proposal includes installing 1,127 WiFi hotspots in the first phase, with plans to hit 25,000 WiFi hotspots to be set up at rural telephone exchanges by 2018.

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