April 2013

Broadband for Rural Masses

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egov 4N Ravi Shanker
Administrator (USOF) & CMD, Bharat Broadband Nigam Ltd

rovide us with an overview of the progress in the project for taking broadband to all the Gram Panchayats?
Let me begin with the details of the three pilot projects that have been launched by Bharat Broadband Nigam Ltd. We have launched the project in Arian block in Ajmer district. Another project has been launched in the Paravada block in Visakhapatnam district and the third pilot project has been launched in Panisagar block in the North Tripura. Under these pilot projects 58 gram panchayats are being provided broadband access of 100 Mbp speed. The response of the telecom industry to these services has not been that enthusiastic. So we had to come up with strategies for implementing these projects. The Department of IT came forward to do part of the funding by deploying equipment in each of the various government institutions in the 58 gram panchayats. They are also paying for the connectivity. NIC has also shown interest in the task. NIC will be procuring the bandwidth from BSNL and will in a way be the bandwidth provider of government services to the citizens. BBNL is the aggregate bandwidth service provider, and BSNL will avail our bandwidth. A tariff committee has been
constituted at BBNL to come up with the rates for different slabs. We want to trigger a broadband revolution in the country by coming up with better tariffs.

“We have already seen in the voice market how competitive tariff can fuel growth. We need competitive tariff in the data market also”

Broadband revolution can be fuelled only when a larger section of the population
gets acquainted with the benefits of the Internet. What steps are you taking to
ensure this?
The Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) is already developing applications that will prove useful to the local populations. In Andhra Pradesh, the e-Governance applications are being launched in Telugu; in Ajmer, it is in Hindi; in Tripura, it is in Bengali. The idea is to make the content relevant to the locals. The applications will facilitate the delivery of a gamut of government services like ration card, land record documents, and the like. We will also be moving in the areas of skill development and e- earning and telekinetic, both of which require high bandwidth.

But how are the applications going to be useful in rural India, where theeGov penetration of computers is quite poor?
Rural India does not have adequate penetration of computers. We have to ensure that people procure some kind of devices that are capable of connecting to the Internet. The devices have to be affordable. For instance, there are the Aakash-type tablets, which are priced around `2,500 to `3,000. In the market we are having lot of economically priced tablets. But just having the tablet is not enough. You also need to have the relevant content that can be accessed through the tablet. So the service provider has to ensure that they are able to package the relevant content, which is designed to serve the needs of the local population. There is also the issue of the tariff. We have already seen in the voice market how competitive tariff can fuel growth. We need competitive tariff in the data market also. With BBNL’s optical fibre network connecting all the gram panchayats, the costs can come down. The connectivity can be integrated with wireless infrastructure to bring maximum benefits to the consumers.

What initiatives can be taken to ensure effective connectivity with the wireless infrastructure?
We already have over 1.5 lakh towers in rural areas owned by both private and public sector. The people who have been successful in the 3G auction will also roll out the services and perhaps expand the towers. So there is good scope for the towers and the terminals to be integrated. High bandwidth of the terminals can become available to the towers and from there passed on to the end consumer. To make all this feasible, a good business model has to emerge so that maximum possible benefit can be brought to the people. We are hopeful that in the next few weeks we will be able to sort out a number of issues and then we can come up with the notice inviting tenders for various tasks associated with the project.

What benefit will the common citizens get from National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN)?
NOFN has the potential of transforming many aspects of our lives including video, data, internet, telephone services in areas such as education, business, entertainment, environment, health households and e-governance services. These services are going to be provided by the Telecom Service Providers and the Internet Service Providers. You have been conducting surveys to find the extent of the incremental OFC that needs to be laid down. Tell us about it. BSNL is playing a crucial role in this. Three PSU execution agencies, namely BSNL, Powergrid and Railtel, have been assigned the States where the survey work has to start immediately. BSNL has been assigned about 70 percent of the Gram Panchayats in the country for OFC laying and POP creation. BSNL has to implement the network in 18 States/Union Territories by extending the OFC of the existing of the PSUs. In the remaining States/UTs, Powergrid and Railtel have to lay the network. It had earlier been calculated that on an average two kilometres per Gram Panchayat is the incremental OFC. However, during the course of the pilot project implementation we found that on an average three kilometres of OFC in Ajmer and 6 Kilometres in Tripura. The exact length for pan- India is now being calculated. Once the survey is complete, we will be able to determine the cost of the project because the length will be a major influence on the cost per unit.Earlier you had said that you are not getting adequate response from the telecom service providers in pilot projects.
Are you developing any plans for making the project more attractive to the private players?
The voice market and the data market are little different in their economics and dynamics. It is imperative to share the pie with the downstream players in the data market. The voice market is something unique to operate. But in the data market, you need to work with intermediaries like cable operators and ISPs. I think the problem is that the private players have not been able to visualise any profits out of the project. Is cost a factor? It is said that cost per kilometre for laying cables is quite high. You see, the government is ready to lay the lines at a price that will be decided by an open tender process. The government is also keen to ensure that the laying of cables does not prohibit or inhibit the telecom service players from providing services. They are using telecom towers to provide services at the customer end, which is in the rural areas. The eco-system will ultimately be driven by a combination of factors. There has to be local content, the cost of devices has to be affordable and there should be competitive tariff.

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