Defence optical fibre network: Services still await dedicated communication platform as slow pace, cost overruns hamper BSNL-led effort

New Delhi: The government's ambitious optical fibre network for defence services billed as exclusive dedicated alternate communication network is plagued by delays despite ramping up spending by state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and execution involving multi-national vendors. The proposal was first approved in December 2009 but faced hiccups at various stages with the government confirming that the project was facing time and cost overrun, which literally means spending will be higher than originally envisaged and putting the already-delayed system further behind.

Representational Image.

Representational Image.

The project was scheduled to be completed by July 2015. Documents reviewed by the Firstpost reveals that the Defence Services, prior to 2002, had released 60+60 MHz of spectrum without asking for any alternate network to migrate its own applications.

In 2009, in pursuance of the recommendations of Empower Group of Ministers' panel, the Ministry of Defence signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoC&IT), which laid a roadmap for the vacation of spectrum amounting to 65 MHz in the 1700-2000 MHz sub band. Three offers were made by the MoC&IT in lieu of the spectrum. First was provisioning of an exclusive and dedicated Optical Fibre Network by MoC&IT to facilitate migration of existing defence systems, promulgation of an exclusive Defence Band (DB) and Defence Interest Zone (DIZ) and thirdly waiver of spectrum charges for defence usage.

“The project being implemented by BSNL has been divided into several components but since the beginning, it hit the roadblocks as the initial tender that was issued in November 2012 was cancelled in February 2013. Now, they have moved forward and awarded the tenders to vendors and placed the purchase order. Though the cost has gone up due to time overrun, it is expected to be completed soon," a government official said.

A detailed questionnaire sent to BSNL’s chairman and managing director Anupam Shrivastava did not elicit any response.

The exclusive details about the project accessed by Firstpost indicate that this was marred by policy paralysis during the UPA regime and continued even when NDA took over in May 2014. It is surprising that almost a decade after files were put in motion, the project hasn’t been completed yet.

“To meet the aspiration of Telecom Sector, Defence Services had agreed in 2009 to release a total of 65 MHz (40 MHz in 2G band and 25 MHz in 3G band) in the 1700-2000 MHz sub band. The telecommunication systems of Defence Forces working in the 2G and 3G band were required to be shifted on wired/ OFC medium. MoC&IT agreed to provide a nationwide backbone communication infrastructure called ‘Project Network for Spectrum’ (NFS) for the three services (Army, Navy and Air Force) in lieu of the 2G and 3G spectrum being vacated by the Defence Services. A MoU was signed between Ministry of Defence and MoC&IT on 22 May 2009 for vacation of spectrum. The timelines for vacation of spectrum by defence services were linked with the implementation of Project NFS,” documents revealed.

Subsequently, the documents said, Project NFS costing Rs 13,334 crore has been approved by the Cabinet in August 2012 with the deadline to complete by July 2015.

“Salient features of the project – the optical fibre network to cover 412 military stations. It involves laying of 60,000 KM of optical fibre cables. The network to have four components- the backbone of the core network, the army access network, navy access network, the air force network,” documents said.

In its outcome budget for 2016-17, the MoC&IT had given another deadline of September 2017 while cautiously suggesting that the completion depends on the purchase orders placed by BSNL.

"The whole project has been divided in 9 components. Purchase Orders (POs) for OFC component have been placed. BSNL is in process of placing of placing POs for other components. The likely date of completion of the project shall be known once all the POs are placed by BSNL. The project cost shall also depend upon the L1 (lowest) rates of various tenders vis-a-vis the estimated costs. It has been decided by Department of Telecom that the case for approval of revised time schedule and revised cost shall be submitted to the competent authority once prices are discovered on placement of POs by BSNL," it said.

Interestingly, the services had earlier raised the concerns over BSNL bandwidth indicating that portion of NFS of Air Force Access Network was not functioning satisfactorily. Documents said: “The network is currently running on the BSNL hired bandwidth. However, it has been experienced that the reliability of links on hired BSNL media is a major concern, due to which Air Force has not been able to migrate their critical air defence communication components on non-radiating media.”

It is pertinent to mention that prior to the spurt in commercial utilisation of spectrum for cellular networks, defence forces were the major users of entire electromagnetic spectrum. With the increase in demand of spectrum for commercial use, the necessity arose to clearly delineate the spectrum for defence to ensure the interference-free performance of defence wireless system.

In accordance with international best practices, the idea of having an exclusive defence band was mooted in 2006. The basic purpose of creating DB was to ensure that the defence spectrum requirements remain confined to exclusive portions of the spectrum, thus paving way for commercial wireless applications, which was need of the hour.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 15:52:06 IST

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