As the project to digitally connect every village receives a financial boost, the watchwords must be self-reliance, security, and empowerment.
Indisputably, mobile phone penetration in India is very impressive. There is a general perception that the urban-rural digital divide is improving steadily. But if one looks deeper, one notes that though the teledensity penetration gap between urban and rural has reduced sharply since 2017, from about 115% to 75%, this is actually due to a sharp fall in urban teledensity from about 170% (due to multiple SIM ownership) down about 130%. During this entire period, the rural teledensity has been flat at 60% (see Chart: Teledensity Trends).
Probing further, if we consider internet penetration, which is of paramount importance to the general public today, while Internet access available in urban areas is 107%, average of more than one connection per subscriber, it is a paltry 40% in rural areas. There is, therefore, an urgent need to improve our rural internet and overall connectivity.
“Drawing insights from the past, we must ensure that the upcoming model for BharatNet is robust, efficient and future-ready.”
The government has put in maximum efforts for over 10 years now to connect the unconnected villages first through the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project which was upgraded to BharatNet subsequently. Despite the huge efforts, about 45,180 villages remain unconnected and underserved, and, thus, the residents of all these villages are unable to participate in the journey of socioeconomic development. The vision of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ is getting adversely impacted.
In this context, a giant stride was taken by the government towards transforming India’s rural digital landscape with the cabinet approval, in August 2023, of a huge allocation of Rs. 1.39 lakh crore to reach 6.4 lakh villages within the next two years from the current 1.94 lakh connected villages under the BharatNet project by laying the last-mile fiber. This initiative, one of the world’s largest government-funded digital connectivity projects, marks a commendable move towards achieving comprehensive broadband coverage, particularly in rural areas. While appreciating the initiative, it is necessary to also chart a robust course forward that embodies India’s core principles of self-reliance, security and empowerment.
The impact of BharatNet on rural India’s economy can be potentially quite dramatic. The project’s intrinsic value to India is even more than its well-established impact on GDP. Broadband connectivity will give farmers much-needed access to technology that provides real-time information on weather, crop patterns and market trends. It will help children in rural areas gain access to online educational resources, and it will enable wider, remote access to telemedicine, among other things.
Overall, the project’s success will greatly improve the quality of life for over 600 million Indians. We would also expect a huge impact of this flagship project on Indian MSMEs’ technological upgradation and increased competitiveness; and on Indian startups’ successful ventures, many of which are doing extraordinary work even at the grassroots level.
The digital path ahead, which is critically dependent on optical fibre rollout to the target locations is, however, not strewn with roses all the way. Even with the latest large funding, there are challenges to be addressed to derive the optimum results. Drawing insights from the past, we must ensure that the upcoming model for BharatNet is robust, efficient and future-ready.
Embracing the principles of quality, ‘Atmanirbharata’ (self-reliance), and ‘Surakshit’ (secure) will be the key to shaping a successful and enduring broadband network that truly serves the people of the nation. There are some crucial success factors for the BharatNet Saturation project that every player involved needs to keep in mind.
All the countries, while launching government-funded mega national projects, ensure that local industries get an opportunity to participate, build local capabilities, generate employment and bring economic prosperity through executing such projects. The journey towards self-reliance necessitates the localisation of manufacturing and production processes.
By prioritising domestic manufacturing and indigenous technology, we can reduce dependency on imports and fortify our national capabilities. Currently, there is a PPP-MII policy to promote domestic manufacturing for government-funded projects. However, there is a need to amend the policy to make it more aligned towards its ultimate goal to promote local manufacturing.
Ensuring the future readiness and security of BharatNet is of paramount importance. As our country is witnessing exponential data growth, it is important to build a robust quality network, which is capable of handling future data demand and complying with international and domestic best practices. Building a future-ready digital infrastructure requires the adoption of international standards and best practices, like upgraded bend-insensitive ITU-T 657. Fibre has much higher efficiency and longer life. Governments, in collaboration with industry experts and stakeholders, play a pivotal role in shaping the digital landscape of the nation. When we talk about quality, we should also ensure strict compliance.
The development and deployment of digital infrastructure demands a firm commitment to testing and certification of telecom equipment before the same is put into use, as tested, and verified products reduce the likelihood of technical glitches, vulnerabilities and operational failures.
Understandably, the government is investing 100% of the capital in this EPC or HAM project and thus to ensure its reliability, security and performance, it is imperative to undergo rigorous testing and certification procedures throughout the development and deployment of this critical infrastructure. The implementation of mandatory testing certification on telecom equipment (MTCTE) is a proactive measure that ensures that only tested, verified and certified products are used to build digital infrastructure.
The government should, however, delink the case of Optical Fibre and Optical Fibre Cables from other elements of the network and immediately implement Phase III and IV of MTCTE for these, with possibly even a strong direction to the industry, outlining the consequences of non-compliance.
Finally, we expect the utilisation model that was successfully tested under a pilot project would be effectively implemented to ensure that such a huge investment in making this mega digital infrastructure impacts every Indian and transforms their lives through high-quality broadband connectivity.
Undoubtedly, the cabinet’s approval of a large allocation for BharatNet marks a great moment in India’s digital journey. This landmark initiative holds the potential to revolutionise the rural economy, uplift millions, and pave the way for a truly inclusive and empowered nation. As we tread this path, the lessons from our past guide us to craft an enduring model that embodies the principles of self-reliance, security and empowerment. By weaving these principles into the fabric of BharatNet, we can make a new chapter in India’s digital story.
The author is the President of Broadband India Forum.
Views are personal.