Since declared by the former President Smt Pratibha Devisingh Patil in the Joint Session of the Parliament on June 4th 2009, on government’s commitment to expanding broadband coverage to connect every pan- chayat to a broadband network in three years, the Telecom Service Providers and the Application Developers have been waiting for the government to launch this mega initiative of providing broadband connectivity to every panchayat village. After a series of As-Is and To-Be study and recommendations by TRAI and an Inter-departmental Committee presided by USOF Administrator, in October 2011 the government had approved the ‘National Optical Fibre Network’ (NOFN) project, for providing broadband connectivity to all 2,50,000 Panchayat villages at an initial cost of over `20,000 crore.
To execute NOFN project, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), named Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), has been established as the nodal agency, BSNL, PGCIL and RailTel would be BBNL’s partner implementing agencies, to connect all 2,50,000 Panchayat villages of the country through optical fibre cable, within an ambitious time line of 2013-14. Under NOFN, a pre-identified location in every Panchayat village, would become a bandwidth aggregation node, with a back-haul bandwidth speed of maximum 100 Mbps at every node. Excluding the ‘technically not feasible’ sites (TNF sites are in the parlance of BSNL where OFC cables cannot be laid due to various reasons), OFC has now reached almost all 6000+ Block headquarter villages in the country. BBNL will execute incremental laying of OFC beyond these Blocks, to reach the next level of Village Panchayats, in addition to the existing cables up to Block level, which may run into a million route-km for the entire country. Besides the tight timeline, it is expected that BBNL has to resolve many other pertinent issues, like, RoW, Business Model, OFC safety and security in the hinterland, Capacity Building, in course of implementation of this mega project.
NOFN will thus end at the 2,50,000 Village Panchayat (VP) level whereas mathematically 2.5 to 3 villages exist below each VP. How the Access Network will be created around the end-point of the NOFN? TSPs will be the sole customers of last mile bandwidth for the BBNL or its partner Agen- cies. Therefore the objective of this massive project will not be fulfilled if the industry (read telecom service providers) does not come up, in an equally fitting manner, to provide access network around those Panchayat level nodes, to reach the 6,40,000 villages down the Panchayats. The TSPs have to gear up, to embrace this new opportunity of extending their network up to the remotest corner of rural India.
There is another vital stakeholder to play an important role in the forthcoming broadband eco-system being created by NOFN project. It is expected that this high capacity bandwidth pipe of NOFN would create a paradigm shift in the bandwidth-intensive social sector services in the areas of telemedicine, animated education, secured financial applications and so on. It is further expected that the economy of scale in respect of various commercially viable citizen services and value-added services will prevail, by bringing in 700 Mn rural people in to the main stream of telecom connectivity. The Application Developer community needs to appreciate the unprecedented potential of this 100 Mbps village level back-haul network and needs to go back to their software laboratory to produce variety of applications on static and mobile platform. The Government of India is very keen that NOFN is implemented on time, fulfilling its stated objectives. NOFN pilots in three Blocks, one each in Rajasthan, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, are expected to be complete by November 2012. To oversee the implementation and proper utilisation of the infrastructure and to gear up the government departments to initiate development and nationally rolling out e-services and e-applications (remember Electronic Delivery of Services Bill is waiting in the corner) up to Panchayat level, a high level coordination committee is already constituted with Secretary DoT as the Chairman, USOF Administrator as the Convenor and Secretaries of I&B, IT,H&FW, PR, RD, F&PDS, School & Higher Education, CMD BSNL, CMD BBNL as members. The committee would assess the G2C/C2G service requirements of the ministries, departments and PSUs for both central and state governments and would evolve design and implementation framework so that by the time of next two years when the NOFN is ready, all those entities in the central and states can readily roll out their services on NOFN.
The government has cast its dice to create an information highway of unprecedented and- width capacity to reach every VP of the country. The issue of free RoW has been solved for most of the states and UTs. Although the govern-ment’s focus is on all round government-citizen service delivery, all the stakeholders outside the government should appreciate the tremendous commercial potential of this network with 100Mbps bandwidth at the VP level. To avoid the ‘cart before the horse’ syndrome, all the stakeholders, especially the TSPs and the application developers, have to invest time, effort and money asap, in their core areas of expertise, to get ready for NOFN on time. They cannot afford to miss this bus…for sure.