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IT Minister addressed fiber cuts in Parliament, said there was “scope for improvement”

Representational picture.

We missed this earlier. 

In response to queries in the Lok Sabha on March 24, Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad spoke about fiber cuts, and admitted certain shortcomings in the rollout of optic fiber cables in the country. Even so, Prasad struck a defensive note on the digital divide, arguing that “the country was kept going by the IT, mobile infrastructure” during the pandemic. Prasad was initially responding to Champaran Lok Sabha MP Sanjay Jaiswal.

“Streets are laid, and cables get cut; irrigation systems are being installed, and cables get cut… This is a big problem in the entire country. I speak to chief ministers, our officers speak to chief secretaries. On Right of Way issues, all states have accepted that Right of Way will be recognized. The member is right that these problems shouldn’t occur,” Prasad said.

“National Broadband Mission (NBM) was launched on 17th December, 2019 with a vision to enable fast track growth of digital communications infrastructure, bridge the digital divide for digital empowerment and inclusion, and provide affordable and universal access of broadband for all,” Prasad said in a written response to the same question, which was also asked by Dhaurahra BJP MP Rekha Verma.

Transcript of exchange

What follows is an edited (and for Hindi segments, translated) transcript of the proceedings.

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Sanjay Jaiswal, BJP MP, West Champaran: Thank you Mr. Chairman. The National Broadband Mission is a very ambitious project announced by Prime Minister Modi from the Red Fort. My question to the honourable minister is, during the UPA government, we all heard about the spectrum scam. But at that time, an optical fiber cable scam happened too — in many places, fiber optic cables were not laid 1.5 meters underground. The result of that is wherever there is fiber optic cables, they get cut at any time… All the fiber optic cables laid at that time in cities, any small incident would result in a fiber cut. At that time, we saw that very shallow digs were done for laying optic fiber cables. But the private players, they use tunnelling equipment to lay fiber.

So my question to the honourable minister is when the country is spending Rs 70,000 crore on fiber optic cables, the Broadband Readiness Index he has spoken of creating, will fiber cables be measured there? Will it just be fiber rollout that is measured, or will there be a dashboard created for finding out if optic fibers are actually working or not?

Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT Minister: Sir, that dashboard is there, but I’d like to present some information to the House. The honourable member has raised some important questions. Narendra Modi-ji’s government has a three-fold strategy for strengthening communication infrastructure.

One is that all of India’s 6 lakh villages will get BharatNet optic fiber cables, the announcement for which he had made from the Red Fort last August. I’d like to correct the honourable member — the Broadband Mission was announced in 1919 itself. Sir, what is Broadband Mission? [interruptions] I stand corrected, 2019. I apologise.

Broadband Mission, Sir, is putting broadband index in the urban area, also in the rural areas. Sir, and that is the work to be done both by the private sector, TSPs, and the government, Sir. Therefore we are providing Rs 70,000 crore from our USOF, and that will be done, suppose, in North-East, in gap areas, we keep on giving funding.

Sir, the issues the honourable member raised, if he could give some specific examples, then I can get them investigated, and we have taken action in such cases already. But, Sir, I will provide two examples of the benefits of BharatNet’s existence.

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Data consumption, which in July 2019 was just 60 terabytes, that has today increased to 1,785 terabytes per month. People are consuming that much data. FTTH connections in villages, 486,040 connections have been given to schools, to anganwadis, post offices, to healthcare centres, police stations, ration shops, to everybody. Private providers have also given 122,039 connections. All this shows an increasing trend in data consumption under BharatNet.

This work is collaborative and cooperative. Insofar as the dashboard the member mentioned, that dashboard is available, we are ready to improve it based on suggestions. But I’d like to request the honourable member and others that– in Bihar we are taking optic fiber cables to all villages, and we will do so in other places as well. The participation and help of MPs in the rollout will make it effective is my belief.

Sanjay Jaiswal, BJP MP, West Champaran: As for a specific example, whenever I go home, my broadband is cut. My issue is that central PSUs are doing this work, state-led model is happening, private sector-led model is happening, PPP mode is happening, what mechanism is in place there, for fiber optic cables on which we are spending so much of our country’s money? For that money to not be wasted?

By the time India celebrates 75 years of independence — the Minister has assured completion of the project by 2022. Champaran has been the land of Mahatma Gandhi, and is where the movement for independence started. So in the 75th anniversary of independence, can the honourable minster, before 2021, be pleased to connect Champaran with broadband?

Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT Minister: I’d like to state one thing unambiguously in the House. The fiber cuts, sir, as far as my ministry’s shortcomings there are concerned, we will definitely address them. Streets are laid, and cables get cut; irrigation systems are being installed, and cables get cut… This is a big problem in the entire country. I speak to chief ministers, our officers speak to chief secretaries. On Right of Way issues, all states have accepted that Right of Way will be recognized. The member is right that these problems shouldn’t occur.

But practical difficulties on the ground; when a National Highway is being widened, they dig, and cables get cut. It’s also important to understand this. As for 2022, that year is our objective on a larger concept of completing this very extraordinary project. Champaran is his constituency, Mahatma Gandhi gave the country freedom from there. I will consider the member’s remarks. We want to reach every village, Champaran will be covered by this.

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Supriya Sule, Nationalist Congress Party MP, Baramati: I’d like to ask the honourable Minister. We had a similar discussion last week on optic fiber also. I’d like to ask you this: India is going through the largest digital divide today because of education during the pandemic. Only 25% of children have managed to have access to good quality education in these challenging and extraordinary times. Are you committed to this 2022 commitment? Especially more so because our children need it? I’d like to extend the point that Sanjay Jaiswal-ji said. I agree with him, and I appreciate your challenges, like the road… It’s not always what your department wants. But at least can we accelerate good quality broadband, at least in Parliament and in MPs’ homes? Because a lot of times, we have to work from our homes, and access sometimes is exceptionally slow, so if we can’t do it in our own Parliament, and in the capital, when will we reach every child who deserves good quality education?

Ravi Shankar Prasad, IT Minister: Honourable chairman sir, as far as the digital divide is concerned, I would say, what was the biggest challenge during Covid? To keep the country united and going. And if I say in a lighter vein, no road, no flight, no national highway movement. The country was kept going by the IT, mobile, infrastructure, we’ll have to acknowledge that. And all this I was handling as a minister, and Piyush-ji’s railway movement t0 enable the– our labourers to move. This we need to acknowledge, sir. Work from Home, we have liberalized. Work from Home has become Work from Anywhere.

As far as the education of children is concerned, I’d like to tell the honourable minister in right earnest that most of the school education went digital. There have been gap areas, I’ll not deny that. But substantially, school continued because of digital education being encouraged. There is scope for improvement, I’ll never deny that. In case of judiciary, Sir, 70 lakh cases were heard digitally, virtually by Supreme Court, High Courts and District Courts. During the challenging time of Covid, the great work done by our communication system, the government and the private both need to be appreciated and acknowledged. But yes, I agree with you, there is always a scope for improvement. As regards the government’s commitment is concerned, I’d like to tell the member and the house through you, Sir, that it is the commitment of the Prime Minister that the communication infrastructure of the country must get improved.

Kindly give me a minute to outline what we are doing to that end. One is the BharatNet project. All the villages. Second, a fair competition in the private sector, they’re also expanding their footprint and putting 4G. Nearly 70 crore smartphones are there, and substantial– also in the rural parts of India. Today, we have got a vast expansion of our broadband and mobile internet, Sir. That we all know. But yes, at the same time, BharatNet, Broadband Mission, satellite communications, we are reaching Andaman & Nicobar, through submarine cables. Now we’re going to Lakshadweep. All are working side by side. I would again urge the honourable MPs, they keep on going to their areas, if there is any specific problem which needs improvement, then surely we’ll be open to address those concerns, but one thing I would again repeat to the members: when you visit your area, please ensure that there is some coordination between the civic agencies and my department; otherwise the cutting part will keep on rising and rising.

Full written question and answer

Will the Minister of COMMUNICATIONS be pleased to state:-

(a) the salient features of the ‘National Broadband Mission’ launched across the country along with the details of the targets set by the Government thereunder;

(b) the estimated fund to be allocated by the Government under the said Mission, State/UT-wise including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh;

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(c) the number of districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh likely to be included under this Mission; and

(d) whether the Government has proposed fast track connectivity in the villages including the villages of West Champaran district of Bihar under the Mission and if so, the details thereof?

ANSWER

MINISTER OF COMMUNICATIONS, LAW & JUSTICE AND ELECTRONICS AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY (SHRI RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD)

(a) to (d) A statement is laid on the Table of the House.

STATEMENT TO BE LAID ON THE TABLE OF LOK SABHA IN RESPECT OF PARTS (a) to (d) OF LOK SABHA STARRED QUESTION NO. 404 FOR 24TH MARCH 2021 REGARDING “NATIONAL BROADBAND MISSION”

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(a) National Broadband Mission (NBM) was launched on 17th December, 2019 with a vision to enable fast track growth of digital communications infrastructure, bridge the digital divide for digital empowerment and inclusion, and provide affordable and universal access of broadband for all. The Mission, inter-alia, envisages achieving following deliverables:-

(i) Broadband connectivity to all villages.
(ii) Availability of high broadband speeds.
(iii) Acceleration of fiberization.
(iv) Increasing tower density and fiberization of telecom towers.
(v) Mapping of fibre.

(b) & (c) It is envisaged that the expenditure of the Government through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) is likely to be approximately Rupees 70, 000 Crore under the National Broadband Mission. The Mission envisages covering all Districts/States of the country including all districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

(d) The Mission aims to provide all villages of the country, including the villages of West Champaran district of Bihar, with access to broadband by 2022 by utilizing appropriate technologies, including optical fiber, radio networks, and satellite. The status of telecom connectivity in Bihar including the district of West Champaran is placed at Annexure. [Note by MediaNama: annexure can be viewed here]

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