Thursday, 9 July 2015

NOFN changes its track

The Digital Era has opened up exciting possibilities for India.  Recently, on the verge of giving a boost to the Government’s ‘Digital India’ drive,  seven states have proposed to come up with their own model to roll out broadband network proposed under Rs. 72,000 crore BharatNet prorgamme. The states have expressed their will to come up with state or SPV (special purpose vehicle) run model.  States like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal will supposedly develop their own model to roll out the broadband network as these states and some more have expressed discontent over the work of central public sector companies involved in National Optical Fibre Network.
  Few days ago, Kerala too gave a push to the campaign by becoming the first state in India to be fully covered by broadband connectivity under the national optical fibre network (NOFN) project.  Initiated in 2011 and funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), the NOFN is now an initiative under “Digital India” programme to connect 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats across the nation by December 2016 through broadband optical fiber network. The project is set to link 600 million rural citizens of India spread over 6,600 blocks and 631 districts. Once the project is completed, it will ease the delivery of multiple e-Services including e-commerce, e-education and e-governance. The project aims to provide the required connectivity for implementation of these services.
The structural design of the project would open up new and vast opportunities for access service providers such as Telecom operators, Cable TV operators including Internet and Content sectors. Moreover, the government has decided to invite private players to accelerate the NOFN project. The project is being implemented by three central PSUs - BSNL, PGCIL and Railtel in the first phase.
It has planned to provide 100 Mbps bandwidth in rural areas that will cover over 600 million people. Industry experts say that it will provide a suitable platform for the launching of next generation services such as e-banking, e-health and e-education for inclusive growth, and is likely to pave ways for the creation of employment opportunities encompassing e-commerce, IT outsourcing, etc for the local people in the villages. 
The growing dependency on digital networks and the ambitious vision of Digital India has called for a reliable, secure and fast connectivity across the length and breadth of the country. Thus, NOFN renamed as  BharatNet is going to be a robust, future-orientated network, with built-in possibilities of capacity enhancement.
The NOFN project, rebranded as BharatNet under  Modi’s ‘Digital India’ programme, has estimated over three fold increase in project cost to Rs 72,778 crore from about Rs 20,000 crore earlier. With an aim to restructure the NOFN project, the Government has decided to overhaul the national broadband project programme. The BharatNet aims at providing broadband connections to villages at monthly rate Rs. 150 in poor states and at Rs. 250 per month in more economically advanced states with speed of 2 Mbps to 20 Mbps for all households and on demand capacity to all institutions. "BharatNet shall be a project of national importance to establish by 2017, a highly scalable network infrastructure accessible on a non-discriminatory basis, to provide on demand, affordable broadband connectivity of 2 mbps to 20 mbps for all households," said the committee report, formed by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to accelerate the project and connect all gram panchayats by December 2016.
Increasing the broadband penetration in India has been one of the prominent objectives of the new BJP government ever since it came into power earlier this year. One of the objectives under ‘Digital India’ programme is to ensure Broadband connectivity at village level. This program was expected to provide broadband to 2.5 lakh villages, 400,000 public internet access points, Wi-Fi in 2.5 lakh schools and universities along with public wi-fi hotspots for citizens among other things.
 “Under BharatNet, broadband availability will be 99.9 percent compared to about 96 per provisioned under NOFN. This means broadband service can be down only for 9 hours in a year compared to 350 hours under NOFN,” the Department of Telecom Joint Secretary V Umashankar said.
Government has given option to roll out broadband network as per three models. Current model operated by CPSUs, SPV or state run and private sector led model to speed up broadband network reach in the country.
The NOFN platform has been visualized to holistically transform the online retailing and e-commerce sectors in rural India. It is expected to open up the gateway to rural development, by facilitating implementation of the e-Government projects in the social sectors like education, health, social security, employment guarantee, financial and banking services, all fostering inclusive growth for rural India. It is further expected that this would also provide a great fillip to private sector for providing other services in the remote places on a viable business model which does not exist so far. 
Being a significant part of the ‘Digital India’, the project is expected to create an impact in sectors such as agriculture, health, education and marketing.  In addition to this, it will also bridge the existing gap between farmers (including other agriculturist) and the market. It would also create a good symbiosis where the market will get exposed to e-commerce giants, and farmers will be able to sell their production online in a cost effective manner. It will also levitate e-Services to the next level with citizen-centric interface.
 Deployment of indigenously designed GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) equipment by C-DOT is another factor that is expected to provide high bandwidth efficiency by using large and variable-length packets. It offers optimum quality of service for delay-sensitive voice and video communications traffic. Moreover, GPON with its attendant empowerment and multiplier effect will boost GDP growth. The technology is on trial in Ajmer, Rajasthan under the BSNL Network.
Government’s vision of Digital India to transform India into a connected knowledge economy through high speed broadband infrastructure with a slew of digital services riding on the information super-highway cannot be achieved without creating the right business model that spurs efficiency through competition, affordability targeted at each section of society and innovation through access. The value proposition for any business model should provide win-win situation for every stakeholder. Here, we are yet to know clearly what type of business model would propose value to BBNL and its partnering agencies.
Secondly, although the government has decided to rope in some private sectors players to expedite the project, but it is seen that some private sectors as well as government undertakings tend to get short sighted and they charge huge amount for laying these optical fibers. Such behavior has led to a slowing down in the development of the project.  Apart from this, the uncertainty of business opportunities in rural areas is also hindering the private sectors to spread their network in the rural hinterland. Consequently USOF kitty grew by an average of Rs.2, 000 crore per year.  Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) under the Ministry of Communications and IT, which is administrating the operations of NOFN has to develop an optical ecosystem to be established in the villages. It is expected that significant amount of investment is likely to be made by the interested service providers in establishing access network complementing the NOFN infrastructure and providing citizen services on commercially viable models. Therefore, to improve feasibility, rather than providing this high capacity bandwidth free, BBNL has to create stakes around the access network through useful  and priority services. On the other hand, in case there are not many service providers to come forward, then government-administered entities and BBNL partners BSNL, PGCIL, RailTel may be asked to provide priority services.
 Another major issue that challenges the implementation of the project is protection of OFC from cut, theft, tampering in rural areas. The upsetting experience of BSNL links is generally associated to frequent cut of underground OFC due to uncoordinated digging of roads and so on. Under NOFN project lakhs of route-km of OFC will be laid, under or over ground, in the rural areas. Hence a close coordination among the NOFN implementation partners and various entities like PWD, Water, Gas, Rural Electricity authorities, Panchayat/Village Board etc assumes prime importance in such issues.   Besides all these, the most important BBNL-related issue lies with optimal utilization of this high-capacity network. Many State Government departments, which eventually could not gear up in last 5 years to load applications worth of even 2 Mbps  band width consistently through SWANs  should get prepared by next 20 months to use 100 Mbps capacity links at the Panchayat level.     
Role of Cable TV networks in promoting Broadband connectivity: 
With an aim to accelerate the penetration of broadband connectivity in the smaller cities of the country, the DoT is planning to involve Multiple System Operators (MSOs) and cable operators to provide broadband connectivity. Trai too suggests that cable networks has a significant role to in increasing the broadband penetration in the country since it can apparently cater to a much larger rural population as compared to DSL connections.
Apart from having a large OFC network as its backbone to provide intra-city and inter- city connectivity, Multi System Operators (MSOs) have apparently laid around 30,000 km of OFC (Optic Fibre Cable) to provide connectivity to cable operators. Cable TV too provides last mile connectivity in almost all the tier-I ,II and tier-III cities, except a few areas like- hilly regions where they might not venture due to capital costs and low revenue issues. But, Government plans to utilize Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to provide incentives to ensure coverage in such areas through viability gap funding, so as to increase broadband penetration. This will also provide cable operators and MSOs with a new business model.
The Broadband Policy 2004 too had suggested that cable TV network might be used as a franchisee network of the service provider for provisioning broadband services in the country.
BharatNet has been conceived uniting the tremendous capacities of the Centre, the State and the private sector collaborating to deliver the dream of Digital India. At the operational level, it has recognized the need for greater flexibility and autonomy for BBNL and the requirement of considerably enhancing its human resource base. It has also noted that quick decision making is critical for efficient implementation of the project. All resources and energies would have to be mobilized so that all Gram Panchayats are reached in the shortest possible time. Only then would Digital India, and through it the countryside prosper.

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