The name is no accident. Smartpur is part of Finnish telecom gear manufacturer Nokia’s efforts to digitise 500 villages across the country. Nokia has partnered with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF)—a non-profit that works on bridging the digital divide in underserved areas—to turn Tain and other villages like it into smart villages.
Housed in the local village council building, the DEF’s office stands as working proof of the Smartpur mission. In one of the rooms occupied by DEF, it runs digital literacy courses and plans to start telemedicine services. All of it powered by WiFi from Airtel.
In the same building, the CSC (Common Service Centre), a citizen-centric government initiative that helps people apply for PAN cards and seek government services, also uses DEF’s WiFi. But the CSC shouldn’t need to do this. Stashed in the CSC room is a trove of equipment. A modem, router, GPON equipment to ensure the single optic fibre feed can serve multiple users. The works. Red and green lights on the equipment blink repeatedly. But the internet the equipment is supposed to enable is but a dream. The WiFi doesn’t work anywhere in the building, let alone the CSC. It doesn’t even show up on the list of available WiFi networks. Locals say this has been the case for days.
If this were just any other internet connection, no one would bat an eyelid. But it isn’t. The connection is part of BharatNet, the government’s flagship digital connectivity programme. Envisioned as the world’s largest digital infrastructure project, BharatNet aimed to provide broadband connectivity to a whopping 250,000 gram panchayats (village councils) across the country.
According to a Department of Telecom (DoT) reply to the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, Rs 10,286 crore ($1.4 billion) has already been spent on the project. 92% of the funds allocated for phase 1 of the project. A BSNL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, puts the net spend at closer to Rs 12,000 crore ($1.6 billion).
However, seven years after the program was conceived, things haven’t quite panned out as intended. Instead, BharatNet has become an example of how government processes and bureaucratic structures can destroy a well-intentioned project. Despite the small fortune spent on the programme, the scheme has been criticised by both government and private organisations alike. Reports from DEF and ICT policy and regulation think-tank LIRNEasia concur that the internet has mostly been non-functional in BharatNet-connected areas.
This reality is playing out in various villages visited by The Ken. In two other villages near Tain—Salaheri and Kherla—the story was the same. No connectivity. In another village— Firozpur Namak—the VLE (village-level entrepreneur) who runs the CSC was using his Vodafone hotspot to work on citizen queries. He says that initially 1.5 GB was given free, but people used it up in one day. Since then, no one has come forward to recharge it. “When they are getting more data on Jio and Vodafone, why would they recharge it. And then also, the network does not work half the time. So what is the point,” he laments.
In an ideal scenario, providers like Bharti Airtel, Jio or Vodafone wouldn’t have rendered BharatNet obsolete. Instead, they should have used BharatNet’s broadband infrastructure to offer WiFi to users. This was the intention of the project. The government would build an optical fibre network, and telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs) would buy bandwidth from state-owned telecom provider BSNL to offer internet services to customers. This hasn’t happened. Even with the imminent advent of 5G—a network that’s hugely dependent on optical fibre—BharatNet’s offering seems to have few takers.
With usage scarce thanks to patchy service, and intended customers both shirking the project and becoming direct threats, BharatNet is a beleaguered entity. So, what does the future hold for the world’s largest digital infrastructure project? Does it even have a future? To get to that, let’s first figure out how BharatNet stumbled into this predicament in the first place.
Rural internet—the holy grail
The need for a service like BharatNet is obvious, its import borne out by the actions of global internet giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google. Google’s initiative is called “Next Billion Users”. It aims to get first-time users onto the internet, either through local language support, high-quality internet access or by improving the smartphone experience. Facebook, which failed with its earlier FreeBasics offering, is attempting to do something similar with Express WiFi, where it will provide public WiFi hotspots for internet access. E-commerce major Amazon, meanwhile, is testing a Hindi interface for its mobile site. It would be fair to assume that a large number of users they are targeting are rural inhabitants. There is a large, untapped market, and these companies want in.
But while their efforts have, at best, been blips in India’s vast digital landscape, taking internet to the masses has been the Indian government’s dream since 2011. The government realised that bringing broadband to villages could transform the way education, health, agriculture and banking are delivered to rural India.
The trigger for this was a 2010 ITU (International Telecommunication Union) report, which said that a 10% increase in broadband penetration leads to a 1.38% increase in the per capita GDP growth in developing economies. From there, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) got in on the act, recommending the establishment of a “National Broadband Network” in two phases, with funding from the USO (Universal Services Obligation) Fund. The network was to be an open access optical fibre network connecting all habitation with a population of 500 and above. Optical fibre was suggested as the medium for this offering as it provided greater bandwidth, scalability, better reliability, etc.
Cabinet approval for the project came in 2011. A year later, the government created a special purpose vehicle called BBNL (Bharat Broadband Network Limited) to create, operate, maintain and manage BharatNet infrastructure. BBNL has three major stakeholders—BSNL, government-run telecom infrastructure provider Railtel, and PGCIL (Power Grid Corporation of India Limited).
The initial target was simple. Complete phase one of the project—connecting one lakh village councils—within two years. Around 2014. But by 2014, the implementation of the programme was still in its initial stages.
The story that followed is one that has played out many times across many different public projects. Deadlines were missed, and then extended. March 2017 was the revised deadline. D-Day rolled around. Still incomplete.
Nine months later, phase one was finally done.
Time to celebrate? Not quite.
A 2018 report by the parliamentary standing committee on IT was scathing in its assessment of BharatNet’s implementation. It observed that “deficiencies have been noted on every aspect of the project like planning, design, procurement, timely availability of skilled labour and contractors, non-participation of the States, lack of evaluation of project feasibility, etc.”
With a report card like that, it’s little wonder that BharatNet is nobody’s darling.
For the project to succeed, it had to work on two levels. First, BSNL, Railtel and PGCIL had to create a solid optical fibre network across the country. Then, once the optical fibre network was ready, service providers had to be given access to bandwidth to provide services in rural areas. Neither happened the way they should have.
Since BSNL’s network was already present at many places, including till block-level in some areas, the existing fibre was simply extended to reach village councils. While the incremental fibre used to connect the village councils was new, the backbone they were tacked on to was old. Phase one is riddled with old fibre. This has severely affected the quality of service. “Breakdowns will happen frequently, and the network will be down unless they replace the old fibre,” says a telecom expert with insider knowledge of BharatNet. He estimates that approximately 40% of the project is built on old fibre.
As a result of this shoddy infrastructure private entities have largely kept away. “The government created this huge infrastructure, hoping that private players—telcos, ISPs, and cable operators will come forward and buy bandwidth from the government. However, telecom companies, who are otherwise always interested in network expansion, have shown no interest in this project”, says a senior BSNL official, who is working on BharatNet.
Further deterring telcos and ISPs was the inability of the government to guarantee quality. Indeed, up until last year, there was no clarity as to who was responsible for the maintenance of BharatNet’s network. While BBNL is in charge of the overall operations, there was no clarity as to who among its stakeholders was in charge of actual maintenance. Finally, BSNL was given the responsibility for operation and maintenance of the network. But this hasn’t helped matters. BSNL hasn’t been able to maintain its own fibre network, so its involvement was hardly a guarantee for service quality. True to form, VLEs in Tain and Firozpur Namak confirm that once a problem occurs with fibre or equipment, there is generally a long wait for repairs.
The combination of frequent breakdowns and delayed fixes affected the SLAs (service level agreements) between BSNL and service providers, driving away the service providers who showed interest. SLAs comprise of the service quality assurances that bandwidth providers (in this case BSNL) offer the primary customer (telcos/ISPs). Network availability is the most important component of SLAs. It’s a commitment made in terms of actual uptime/downtime of a network, guarantees about emergency maintenance, and the like. When it comes to BharatNet, these SLAs mean precious little. In fact, for a long time, there were no clear SLAs at all.
“There is no accountability. Ultimately, I as a service provider would be dependent on BSNL, and if there are no rules of service, then it spoils my reputation. Say for example, if WiFi does not work for five days, the SLA has to clearly state, who and by when will maintenance of optical fibre be undertaken”, explains the CEO of an ISP which is present in Eastern states. His company had initially signed up for a few villages in North India, but the lack of assured service quality put paid to this.
Not worth the cost
At the end of the day, for businesses to bite, a proposition needs to be feasible. And in the case of BharatNet, it seems like the government may have overestimated the appetite of telcos and ISPs. They just don’t seem to believe there’s significant demand for data in rural areas and, as a result, don’t see that they have too much to gain from the BharatNet project.
In some of these areas, voice connectivity is so poor that, theoretically, it makes perfect sense for data to take off. But telcos are not sure whether they would get a large number of subscribers since a device ecosystem capable of utilising their services still hasn’t been developed. This isn’t without reason, Counterpoint Research puts the number of feature phone users in the country at 500 million. While newer feature phones can use 3G and 4G services, earlier feature phones were limited to 2G.
In essence, while BharatNet’s website claims to have connected 114,741 village councils, serving a lot of these remote villages does not make financial sense to telcos. For a telecom company to spend Rs 25-30 lakh ($34,395-41,274) on a location, they expect returns that aren’t currently possible. The repeated delays in implementation have meant that many telcos, even relative newcomers like Jio, have established their own presence in many rural and semi-rural areas, rendering BharatNet unnecessary.
“In the survey that we did in 2016, the feeling that we got from private players is that they do not find it commercially viable and profitable. They also talked about the ease of doing business with government, and clarity of terms and costs,” says Professor P Vigneswara Ilavarasan, Associate Professor at the Department of Management Studies in IIT Delhi. Professor Ilavarasan had done a study on BharatNet in 2016.
The government has done its best to bring private players to the table ever since phase one was declared complete, but while Airtel, Jio, Vodafone and Idea did sign up, sources in BSNL say that not much has happened after. While Airtel is conducting a few pilot projects, none of the other telcos are doing anything. BSNL also brought down tariffs after the government intervened, but it hasn’t helped BharatNet’s cause. The Ken reached out to Airtel, Vodafone and Jio, but all the emails went unanswered.
Experts believe that this whole situation could have been avoided if private stakeholders were involved in the process earlier on. N Ravi Shankar, BBNL’s first chairman, claims that during the initial discussions in 2010-11, private telcos were called and asked to share the infrastructure they had. However, they did not share any concrete plan, making the government resort to its own companies to carry out the project. While telcos did not clarify this point, many on the other side who have seen these developments at close quarters refute this claim. A senior officer at Trai claims that Trai had recommended involving private players in 2016, but it wasn’t done. Today, the only private companies involved in BharatNet are equipment manufacturers such as Tejas Networks, Sterlite Tech and HFCL.
All of this paints a pretty grim picture of BharatNet’s future, but there’s still a concerted push from the government to make it work. Sources say that a lot of this is from the Prime Minister’s Office and minister for communication (independent charge) Manoj Sinha’s office since it is one of the key pillars of Digital India. With the 2019 elections on the horizon, there will be all the more pressure to deliver outcomes from BharatNet. Allegedly, in a recent meeting, DoT secretary Aruna Sundararajan gave an earful to all stakeholders involved in the project and has been the driving force behind whatever little private participation has come in.
But just cracking the whip is unlikely to be enough. Changes need to be made, and there is some evidence of this. In the project’s second phase, BBNL is trying not to repeat its earlier mistakes. Last-mile connectivity is a priority. As is bringing telcos and ISPs on board. Since none of this can happen without an overhaul of the existing infrastructure, DoT has asked BBNL to lay fresh fibre from the block to GP.
One of the other learnings from phase one was that states were not involved, leading to slower execution and lower utilisation. For the ongoing second phase, eight states—including Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh—will be implementing BharatNet on their own, with some funding assistance from the Centre.
But that may not be enough. Operational issues and bureaucratic structure continue to mar BharatNet’s implementation. Procurement delays, for example, have played a major role in the project not meeting its deadlines, and these continue unabated. Sample this: A tender for offering last-mile access through WiFi services was first launched in December 2017. It has been corrected 12 times since then, according to BBNL’s website. It still hasn’t been finalised.
A senior PGCIL official also revealed that there is a severe equipment supply crunch for phase two. 700,000 kilometre of fibre has to be laid in the next six months under phase two, but this isn’t available. “There are seven or eight vendors, but they are not able to meet the requirement primarily because basic raw material is not available. As a result, the cost has gone up. The demand has suddenly multiplied because deadline is approaching. Had they done it in a staggered manner, this would not have happened,” the PGCIL official says. As a result, he feels the March 2019 deadline for phase two is untenable.
“Connecting all 250,000 panchayats across India’s vast geography was never going to be an easy task. However, if the government wants to force digital payments and digital identification in exchange for entitlements and public services for the most marginalised communities, providing functional internet connectivity and the required tools to access it should be the bare minimum requirement”, says Osama Manzar, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation. For now, this bare minimum seems like a distant dream.
Back in Tain, life goes on even as the BharatNet equipment continues to gather dust. The internet they are meant to facilitate remains elusive. The lights on the router still blink. Red and green. Green and red.