Sumyesh SrivastavaDec 26, 2019 16:05:25 IST
To ensure internet access, as well as the opportunity to avail the many services and products, both government and private, which are available online, infrastructure creation for internet connectivity plays a very important role.
The Government has recently announced the National Broadband Mission, which seeks to provide access to all villages in India by 2022. While we await more information on how this will be implemented, for now, we have BharatNet.
Bharat Broadband network, or BharatNet, is a project under the Digital India initiative, which seeks to provide internet connectivity to all Gram Panchayats (GP) in India, 2.5 lakh in total. The infrastructure created under BharatNet is treated as a national asset, to be accessible to all service providers. BharatNet is being funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund, generated through the Universal Access Levy charged on revenues of all telecom operators. BharatNet is being implemented in three phases, Phase 1 covered 1 lakh GPs, Phase 2 is covering 1.5 lakh, and Phase 3 is focused on upgrading existing infrastructure.
BharatNet: A costly white elephant?
There are many issues with the design and implementation framework of BharatNet, but the issue that threatens to turn BharatNet into a white elephant is the cost which has gone into BharatNet, without getting the appropriate results. The current budget for the BharatNet project is Rs 30,920 crore. The original deadline to complete BharatNet phase -1 was October 2014, though as per an RTI response, it was actually completed in December 2017. As per the same RTI, phase-2 is still in progress and has missed multiple deadlines.
BharatNet is supposed to be the backbone for digital service delivery in rural areas in India. It is the base on which all other initiatives depend. Hence, the delays in its implementation have a cascading effect on the lived realities of rural citizens. One of the original omissions in the scope of BharatNet is that provision for last-mile connectivity of Gram Panchayats was made quite late, specifically in July 2017. By May 2017, around 1,10,000 Gram Panchayats were service ready, but lack of provision for last-mile connectivity has led to a delay in the operationalisation of BharatNet in these GPs.
As of 11 March 2018, cables had been laid in 1,13,467 GPs, of which 1,04,548 were service ready, which means that last mile internet connectivity from the GP to the consumer using Wi-Fi hotspots or other means could be provided. However, news reports indicate that only 5,010 GPs have commercial broadband connections. Till 31 October 2018, the average data consumption on these connections has been 660 MB, an extremely low number. This is all the more worrying, because BharatNet, by design, is supposed to be revenue-neutral by 2024.
Non-performing PSU's retained for next phase
The problem stems from how the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), instead of being a monitoring and planning authority, has also taken up all the responsibility for implementation. A main reason for the delay in implementation of Phase-1 was that implementation was done through three PSUs: BSNL, Railtel and PGCIL. The parliamentary standing committee on IT, in its evaluation report on BharatNet, highlighted that despite having expertise in working with optic fiber technology, the performance of the three PSUs has not been up to the mark contributing to the delay in implementation. What is more worrying is that BSNL and PGCIL have been retained for Phase-2, without any penalty for non-performance or any revised action plan on how they will improve.
In Phase-2, the situation has been remedied somewhat, with private sector participation being encouraged and two states, Punjab and Bihar are implementing BharatNet through private sector agencies. However, in the standing committee report, penalty clauses have been proposed for private players for non-performance, but not for PSUs, potentially creating an unequal playing field. With all the work that has been imposed on BBNL for implementing BharatNet, the fact that as of 2018, the existing working strength is just 43.19 per cent of the total sanctioned working strength highlights a particular challenge of state-led implementation.
Solutions for better implementation of BharatNet
The solution here could be to reshape the mandate of BBNL and review the role that the State should play in infrastructure creation for BharatNet. BBNL should function as a coordinating authority, rather than performing full implementation functions.
In the parliamentary committee report, it has been observed that a lack of single window clearance for work related to BharatNet has contributed to a delay in implementation, due to issues such as right of way, availability of land, clash with existing infrastructure work and the multiple agencies involved in both implementation and giving permissions. This is a function where BBNL can contribute and help with coordination.
In terms of implementation, we can look at some models which have been adopted in other countries. In Australia, the Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) program was started in 2007, in response to data which showed that internet services were not available for rural and remote areas. The objective was to provide broadband services in areas where they are not commercially available. Minimum internet speeds, as well as maximum cost to customer were detailed in the program. A one-time incentive payment was offered to internet service providers to supply broadband services in eligible areas. The services were divided into three basic tiers, ‘entry’, ‘threshold’ and ‘value-added’. The program was ended in 2011 after it was found that the number of underserved premises in Australia had fallen from over 9,25,000 at the start of the program to 1,60,000. This was attributed to both the program itself, as well as the demand created for commercial internet services through the functioning of the program.
Estonia follows a model where communications undertakings, are invited to provide universal service in a designated area. The price for the service is to be fixed by the State, and there is a provision to compensate the undertaking for any losses incurred in providing universal service.
The United States follows a model where broadband services are included within a Lifeline program, which has been running since 1985 which provides discounted phone and internet service in poorer communities. In the 2016 Lifeline Modernisation Order, the Commission included broadband as a support service in the Lifeline program. The program provides participating households a $9.25 per month credit to use for internet access. However, the program has been scaled back in 2019, with some measures such as extra subsidy for tribal households being capped.
In India, we can perhaps look at the model of how when there was a need to expand access to banking services for people in rural areas, the State had stepped in by imposing a specific mandate for banks to open a specified number of new branches in rural and underserved areas if they want to expand. We can also learn from some of the models discussed above, where the State either incentivised private service providers to create infrastructure or provided a subsidy to citizens in underserved areas to drive demand. The argument here is not that the State has no role, but that the State's resources and expertise would be better employed in creating enabling regulation and facilitating coordination. The State can always step into infrastructure creation, in areas which may get left behind even after implementing some of the models suggested above.
Bharat’s need for internet connectivity is extremely urgent, both for accessing State services and information as well as for personal consumption. As the government announces a National Broadband Mission, one hopes that the name change is not merely cosmetic, and also carries with it an updated strategy and implementation design which can create the infrastructure needed for people to have access to a better quality of life.
The author is a programme manager at Nyaaya, an initiative of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy