Four years after its launch and Rs 11,000 crore later, less than 2.5% percent of India’s 2.5 lakh village panchayats have commercial broadband connections under the BharatNet project, reports The Wire. Note that Bharat Net was rebranded from its initial name National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) in 2015.

In February 2018, the Centre announced that over 1.1 lakh village panchayats had been provided optical fibre connectivity. However, The Wire reports that as of October 31, 2018 only 5,010 village panchayats have actual commercial broadband connections, and 56,700 village panchayat have test broadband connections. Test connections are free connections provided only for 6 months.

However, contradicting the figures reported by The Wire, the Department of Telecom (DoT) secretary Aruna Sundararajan said that the infrastructure has reached one lakh gram panchayats, according to an Economic Times report. She further told ET, “With regard to BharatNet, we have put in this infrastructure in one lakh gram panchayats but states are not coming forward to utilise it. So, how do we reach across to the states to make sure that they utilise it because that will then create more opportunities for monetisation … necessary to ensure services reach the people.”

Optical fibre cable getting damaged

The Wire story quotes Department of Telecom (DoT) sources as saying that only 660MB of data is being consumer per connection. However, there are no further details about the timeframe in which this data was being consumed. The news report cites a recent letter to the DoT. BSNL pointed out that the “optical fibre cable (under BharatNet) is getting damaged”, presumably due to the cable not being used. 

Meanwhile, Sundararajan transferred eight senior officials to other departments over the delay in the implementation of the BharatNet project reports The Hindu BusinessLine.

The NOFN was approved by the cabinet in August 2014 under Digital India scheme. Its goal was to cover 250,000 village panchayats under DoT, and implemented by BSNL. The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) provides all the funding for the implementation of the NOFN project.

Findings by The Wire

According to the Wire report, only 14 states had any sort of commercial broadband connections, while gram panchayats in 8 states had no broadband connectivity. Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh were among the states with zero broadband connectivity, while Chennai and Chandigarh that did not have any commercial broadband connections.

The top 5 states with fibre-to-the-home connectivity

Karnataka 2,290
Maharashtra 720
Kerala 546
Madhya Pradesh 441
Chhattisgarh 262

The test connections have not reached 3 states and two capitals. These include Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Chennai and Chandigarh. However, the report does not specify when these connections were set up.

Top five states with Test Connections (free connections for a limited time period)

Uttar Pradesh 14,873
Madhya Pradesh 8,614
Rajasthan 5,401
Maharashtra 5,016
Odisha 3,315

Connectivity in the North East

At the heart of the implementation of BharatNet  is the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) – a government-controlled fund that is supposed to build rural connectivity infrastructure.

The Wire did not specify which North East states had any connection. It added that the USOF had been delaying Phase II of the LWE (left-wing extremist) project for setting up 6,245 towers in LWE-affected areas and Meghalaya. This was under BharatNet itself. The report added that the project is stuck due to different budget estimates by BSNL and USOF. While USOF said that the project would cost around Rs 11,241 crore, BSNL said it would cost it Rs 5,312 crore.

The report also divided the North East into two parts: North East 1 and 2.

  • North East 1:  The cabinet approved 2,817 mobile towers for the North East region in September, 2014. The project cost is Rs 2,258 crore. The project has been a non-starter, with USOF officials repeatedly imposing new conditions even after the tender was opened up.
  • North East 2: The cabinet approved the setting up of 1001 mobile towers in NE region in September, 2014. Project cost is Rs 826 crore. It is not yet operational.

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