On 12 January Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad Monday commissioned India's first hi-speed rural broadband network in Kerala's Idukki district.
Speaking on the occasion, Prasad said the country was witnessing "a new era of digital empowerment" and his government "has firmly set its focus on the all round development and inclusive growth of the country". This project is a part of NOFN.
NOFN (National Optical Fibre Network) project is a giant leap in order to bridge the digital divide in India by linking 2,50,000 gram panchayats through optical fibre cable. The project is set to link 600 million rural citizens of India spread over 6,600 blocks and 631 districts through broadband optical fibre network. (see Diagram )
This tribal gram panchayat in Kerala is 34km away from the nearest town and has no road connectivity, electricity or piped water. The rural people of India living under such conditions look forward to the new economic development opportunities that NOFN has opened for the country.
It is expected that the establishment of NOFN would open up new avenues for access service providers like mobile operators, cable TV operators etc. to launch next generation services, and spur creation of local employment opportunities encompassing e-commerce, IT outsourcing etc. as well as services such as e-banking, e-health and e-education for inclusive growth.
NOFN, which is being funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), of the department of telecom, is envisaged as a non-discriminatory telecom infrastructure that will bridge the gap in rural telecom access. In the first phase, it will cover 50,000 gram panchayats, with the balance 200,000 panchayats expected to be covered in a phased manner by 2016. The project is being implemented by three central PSUs - BSNL, PGCIL and Railtel in the first phase.
Is the project more of a hype or there is any substance in it?
The NOFN Project was approved by the Cabinet on 25 October 2011. It was to finish by December 2012 at a cost of Rs 20,000 Cr. However, the way our government departments work, there is more of a hype than work. Target deadlines keep shifting and costs keep getting renewed benefitting many private players as well as bureaucrats involved in it. Completion date has now been shifted to March 2016. The fact is that even the three trial projects are not doing well.
“Right now we are sort of deluding ourselves by saying we will achieve 100 percent and all of you know exactly what has been achieved," Trai Chairman Rahul Khullar had said recently about the NOFN.
Now, after the Modi government took over, the project has again been given a push. The Department of Telecom has asked officials to fast-track the NOFN project and warned of action against those who are not taking decisions or delaying it. Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg has stressed upon the need to improve decision making and directed that administrative action be taken against officials delaying the project. He emphasised at a recent review meeting of the NOFN project that it is being monitored at the highest level and every possible measure should be taken to make it a success.
In a review, it was found that all circles are lagging behind the schedule in issue of work orders. Sources said many circles have invited tenders several times but could not finalise them for one reason or the other.
Many suggestions are coming in to make the project successful. “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg proposed use of drones to bridge digital divide. Similar kind of suggestions have also come from Google and Microsoft. Google has suggested to pilot a project using its ‘hot air balloons’. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella had offered a pilot project for its ‘White-Fi’ technology to link difficult terrains. Ravi Shankar has even asked the industry for suggestions to expedite the project. Cable Operators Federation (COFI) has also suggested to use cable operators in rural areas who have laid miles of fiber optic cable.
But the fact is that if we have not even taken off in the last five years, what will we achieve by 2016?