By Nandita Singh
TV Ramachandran, the current President of Broadband India Forum (BIF) and one of the founding pillars of Indian Telecom, popularly known as TVR, in an interview with Voice&Data elaborates on BharatNet technology mix and other challenges that could get in the way, and delay Digital India reality -if not pro-actively addressed.
Voice&Data: What is your view on India’s Broadband project BharatNet phase I execution?
TVR: Indian Government had sanctioned Project National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) and a budget of Rs.20,000 crore to achieve the above five years ago in 2011 itself. However, Project NOFN was dogged by bad luck as well as ineffective design and poor implementation – mired in bureaucratic execution processes by the three CPSUs who were entrusted with the implementation for Bharat Net-Phase I viz. BSNL, PGCIL & Railtel right from the start and, after over four years of little progress against repeatedly-relaxed deadlines, instead of burying the basic fibre in the ground, the Project itself was ironically given a quiet burial around mid-2015. This had been preceded by an excellent set of TRAI Recommendations in April 2015 for ‘Delivering Broadband Quickly’ through much revamping and a more holistic approach.
Realizing the shortcomings in the implementation of BharatNet Phase-I, and armed with a mandate to recommend changes during BharatNet-Phase II , TRAI launched a comprehensive Consultation Process for Implementation of BharatNet, the new holistic name for the erstwhile NOFN project.
After an exhaustive round of consultations & discussions, TRAI came out with its recommendations of revamping the BharatNet project implementation on February 1, 2016. It is very rare that Regulatory Recommendations are equally acceptable to all stakeholders. However, this time, there is all-round acceptance that the measures suggested by TRAI would surely give ‘Project BharatNet’ a big boost and help achieve ‘Broadband India’ most expeditiously. The key to the success of these new recommendations would be the TRAI- recommended BOOT model with involvement of the private sector for deployment & operations. However, experts are of the view that, for strategic reasons, the ownership/funding must remain predominantly with the government. Such an ownership structure is essential to ensure open, non-discriminatory access to all operators. Moreover, given the size and complexity of the project along with associated capital risks, it may not be prudent to consider handing over the ownership to the private sector.
Voice&Data: What results can we expect to see on ground in phase II & III of BharatNet?
TVR: Phase II which is to provide connectivity to the balance 150,000 GPs (after Phase-I connects to 100,000 GPs ) would be rolled out using a mix of Fiber, Unlicensed Radios & Satellite and is expected to go on stream from July 2017 and is expected to be completed by December 2018. The final phase ( Phase III ) is to provide connectivity from the GPs to the individual villages using a mix of Public Wifi and other Wireless Access technologies.
If this Government continues to show its serious intent as has been the case for the past two years with the execution of Phase-I in the remaining GPs and with the involvement of the private sector during Phase II, it is expected that Phase II would get completed by 2018 December, as scheduled and Phase III to be completed thereafter by 2020.
Voice&Data: In terms of India Broadband strategy: Do you think prudent choices have been made keeping in view tech-obsolescence and best fit for various geographies? Please elaborate.
TVR: Choice of mix of Fiber, Wireless and Satellite technologies is probably a good one. However, we are slightly disappointed at the outcome of the RF planning report provided by IIT Mumbai (consultant for BharatNet Phase-II) which has estimated very low requirements for Satellite coverage of GPs as compared to that of the Expert committee which had submitted its report on March 2015. At Broadband India Forum (BIF), based on our independent assessment, we had estimated approx. 37,000 GPs were fit enough for being connected with Satellite. This was due to the difficult terrain in hilly areas, deep and dense forest areas and in the rural and remote areas of NorthEast & the islands of Andaman & Nicobar & Lakshwadeep besides mountainous areas like Leh, Ladakh, etc., where it was felt that satellite would perhaps be the only recourse. However, IIT Mumbai has recommended a meagre number of around 500 GPs instead to be connected with satellite. IIT Mumbai report has also recommended a rather controversial choice of Unlicensed Radios in 5.8 Ghz band for connecting approx. 30,000 GPs. Since this is for providing high capacity backhaul for areas, which are located within 1-5 km distance from nearest Fiber POP, where there are more than 500 households with an average of 2 Mbps per connection, where each GP may require around 1 Gbps in future. Also as per the band characteristics, the band may suffer from congestion issues with progressive usage and perhaps has no scope for scalability of bandwidth in future. It is felt that scholars from IIT Mumbai could perhaps have left the choice of technology to the implementing /execution agency or could have recommended the choice of high capacity unlicensed bands viz. 60 Ghz (V band ) which would have met the futuristic throughput requirements easily.
Other technology choices which have completely been ignored and which need to be taken cognizance of while delivering ubiquitous broadband in the most affordable and cost effective manner. These are :
- Cable Broadband:The Cable network today passes through almost 100 million homes which if scaled to support broadband, could enable connectivity to at least 400-500 million subscribers across the country
- Public Wifi:At BIF we laud TRAI for its excellent recommendations announced on Proliferation of Public Wifi and believes that these once accepted shall lead to spread of affordable broadband everywhere.
- Opening of V band ( 60Ghz ):As is well known, the existing Wifi bands (2.4Ghz & 5 Ghz) are currently suffering from congestion. Also, the existing channel bandwidths of 20Mhz or its multiples are perhaps inadequate to meet the bandwidth demands of the future. It is here that the V band (60Ghz) which has a spectrum spread of 7Ghz ( 7000 Mhz ) can provide a big breakthrough. We at BIF have been active in spreading the message and exhorting the need for this band to be opened up for delicensed usage so that it can be used for either access or backhaul for supporting Multi-Gigabit throughputs, to meet the broadband needs of the future.
Voice&Data: What in your view can be done to improve private participation in the project and ensure speed as well as direction?
TVR: BIF of whom I happen to be the current President has already made its suggestions while responding to TRAI’s Consultation Paper on implementation of BharatNet . Some of the salient suggestions made by us include :
- i) Concessionaire period of operation/agreement between the executing agency (private party) and the ‘owner’ ( Government) be kept as 25 years, co-terminus with the life of the optical fibre. This would give the operator sufficient incentive to recover the costs sunk into the project. Also, extension of the lease/agreement period for a further period in blocks of 10/20/30 years, subject to mutual agreement must also be permitted.
- ii) Involvement of Government (Centre/State) as an equity partner in the consortium as it will help in getting faster Govt. clearances, resolve the risk of monopolistic behaviour while also automatically solving the risks associated with windfall profits. iii) Flexibility in terms of route for laying optical fibre, choice of construction, topology and technology to be allowed to the bidder/executing agency (private party)
- iv) Selection of bidder based on the Minimum Viability Gap Funding (VGF) sought and to align the service area as the LSA or the state/circle itself.
- v) Incentives to the private operators for early achievements against pre-defined milestones.
- vi) Inbuilt measures to ensure access is provided to all service providers in a non-discriminatory and transparent manner.
- vii) Regulation of wholesale pricing by TRAI to safeguard against anti-competitive behavior and to ensure affordability.
- viii) Liberal eligibility criteria to allow maximum participation of private bidders.
- ix) RoW (Right-of-Way) must be provided free of cost by all the states to the executing agency. This is an absolutely essential requirement for the success of this project. In fact, we would like to state that this is the most fundamental requirement for this project.
Most of these have also been recommended by TRAI in their recommendations to the Govt for Bharat Net Phase II.
Voice&Data: What major challenges could play spoilsport, if not countered early in BharatNet project at this point of time?
TVR: Some of the serious challenges that have dogged implementation of BharatNet Phase I and have led to its delay could be associated here as well. They are viz.
- Challenges encountered in Provision of smooth funding by Govt.
- Challenges in obtaining timely clearances for ROW for laying OFC and also to be provided free of cost.
- Lack of availability of sufficient incentives for participating Service Providers for using the backbone.
- Lack of timely disbursement of VGF to areas where broadband cannot be achieved by market on commercial basis.
- Lack of Proper involvement of the Private Sector in management, governance & operation besides execution of the backbone in true spirit of PPP model.
- Lack of strict Monitoring mechanism and lack of timelines for each milestone achieved.
Voice&Data: To what extent have operators started to utilize the backbone built so far, given that it is available to all? How do you think this will pan out?
TVR: It is understood that Fiber has been purportedly laid to around 84,000 GPs till end of January 2017. All the 100,000 GPs were to be connected and completed by March 31st as a part of BharatNet Phase I. Out of the 84,000 GPs connected, it is understood that fiber at only around 17,000 GPs were lit till end of December 2016. The balance sites were waiting for want of electronics ( GPON ) and power to be supplied, installed and commissioned .
As regards utilization of the constructed backbone, it is understood that majority of this capacity is yet to be utilized.
BBNL /BharatNet is supposed to provide open non-discriminatory and fair access to all players – both from the private and the public sector. However, service providers would need confirmed bandwidths with SLAs from BBNL for carriage of traffic from GPs upwards to District HQs . For this to happen, not only the network from Block to GP must be robust enough but the entire network upwards from Block to District HQs must be equally robust and service providers may be permitted to get connectivity at District HQ itself to host their NOC & Server/Application data centers.
The bandwidth costs should be kept reasonable and BBNL should be able to support high reliability and network uptime right from GP to District HQ. This will enable operators to utilize, the backbone to deploy more low cost attractive services to the rural and remote areas thereby spreading true full-blown broadband services to the rural areas of the country and enabling the vision of Digital India.