Budget 2017: With Rs 10,000 crore allocated to Bharat Net; there is still a long way to go

With Rs 10,000 crore allocated to Bharat Net in 2017 Budget; there's a lot more to be done here than you, myself and the government can imagine.

Back in October of 2011, the government of India approved a National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) which was meant to connect all 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats (GPs) in the country. The idea was to use the existing optical fibre cables (OFC) and simply extend them to local GPs, an idea which was easy to imagine, but deemed hard to execute from the very beginning.

The goal of the NOFN was to provide non-discriminatory access to all Telecom service providers with the objective to provide services in rural areas.

Bids were made and the execution of the same begun with BSNL, RailTel and PGCIL taking charge under the watchful eyes of the Telecom department with funding for the same coming from the Universal Services Obligation Fund.

Based on what was learned from the NOFN, the government of India the set up a telecom infrastructure called Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) that is today commonly referred to as Bharat Net.

As of 2012 the first annual report gave a breakdown of who was handling what.

  • It was decided that Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) would connect 1,73,910 GPs (which was about 70.77 percent of the whole project).
  • RailTel would take up 36,047 GPs (14.67 percent)
  • PowerGrid Corporation of India (PGCIL) would take up 35,791 GPs (which would account for another 14.56 percent).

As of 2014 the progress of the Bharat Net was as good as nothing. A Government of India Ministry of Communications & Information Technology press release indicated the same with just 2,292 km of OFC pipes laid and and barely 358 km of Optical fibre laid down in the country.

The progress from 2014 to 2016 showed a massive improvement with 1,24,797 km pipes laid and (covering 51,616 GPs) and 96,597 km of fibre connected (covering 41,086 GPs) which was a massive leap, but somehow it was not enough.

Things had improved with the Modi government and this made sense as the NOFN was a necessity for the prime minister's pet project Digital India to become a reality.

So no matter how much progress was made, things needed to speed up.

With new Rs 10,000 crore allocation from the budget, we could expect the Bharat Net to speed up, not with fast internet, but with faster implementation.

Problems with limited resource deployment which had pushed the deadline ahead to the end of December 2016, but as of today Bharat Broadband Network Limited website itself indicates that there is still plenty of ground to be covered.

As of 29 January 2017, the website hints that progress has been pretty good but the goal to connect 2,50,000 GPs (and counting) is still far away.

The dawn of the new year saw 1,98,064 km of OFC Pipe laid (covering 84,575 GPs) with 1,72,257 km of fibre laid (covering 76,089 GPs).

Things seem to be moving at a steady pace as well with 776 km of OFC laid on a weekly basis while the pipe laying work seems far ahead with 2,421 km being laid per week.

While it does sound like progress compared to the first two years of the project, the government is still 1,73,911 GPs short of its target.

While demonetisation has all us occupied at the moment, all those plans and ideas of e-governance and a Digital India and the new DigiGaon initiative seem like a distant dream unless things speed up. For now all that budget allocation seems to do is prevent all those questions about progress from popping up.

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