“There are six lakh villages in India and a vast number of them were uncovered with telecom services. USO Fund provides support for setting up rural telephony in these uncovered villages”, says Ajay Bhattacharya, Administrator, Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund, Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India to egov magazine
Please tell us about the origins of Universal Service Obligation Fund in India and what are the major achievements till now.
The Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund came into existence in 2002 in India with the aim of providing telecommunication services in the rural and remote areas of the country at an affordable price. There are six lakh villages in India and a vast number of them were uncovered with telecom services. USO Fund provides support for setting up rural telephony in these uncovered villages. There are still a large number of uncovered villages which need to be covered. Due to various reasons such as difficult terrain, border areas, scarcely populated area etc., special attention is required by these villages because of the specific needs that they have. Therefore, they would need specific technology such as satellite coverage and this will be done in the course of this year. The other achievements of USO Fund is that of Shared Mobile Infrastructure. In the first phase, 7,800 mobile towers will come up by the end of this year to provide mobile telephony to the rural and remote areas of the country. Each tower will be shared by several operators. This is a very good way of reducing capital expenditures and it will help in providing rural connectivity at an affordable cost. In the second phase, we are planning to have an additional 11,000 towers on a broad basis.
How is the USO Fund utilised in terms of providing connectivity?
Funds are allocated for various projects and programmes on the basis of competitive bidding and after completing the procedure that is laid down. Funds are not allocated on a state-wise basis or on a geographical basis. We provide funds to service providers on the basis of competitive bids. Major telecom operators such as BSNL, Tata Teleservices, Reliance and others have been actively taking part in various projects and activities of USO Fund. Apart from this, there are major infrastructure providers who have qualified by the bidding process for setting up towers for mobile services in the rural and remote areas. Initially, we went with the philosophy of providing public phones in rural areas like Village Public Telephone. Now, with the mobile telephony coming in rural areas, we are moving towards supporting shared infrastructure for mobile and other services. This will help the service providers in reducing capital costs in providing telecom services in rural areas, where the average revenue per user is generally low.
What are the major challenges in providing last mile connectivity in India?
As compared to urban areas, rural India needs much more attention for providing the last mile connectivity. One of the major issues in relation to the last mile connectivity is the high capital investment and low returns. In rural areas where fixed line connectivity is not feasible, wireless solutions such as Wireless Well Solutions (WLL), etc. is often preferred by the service providers.
What are the future plans for allocation of USO Fund across India?
As I said earlier, we have plans for setting up an additional 11,000 towers across India. This is expected to be rolled out by the end of this year. Apart from this, we are also looking at provisions of broadband services in all blocks across India. USO Fund will be fully involved in these activities. USO Fund also proposes to support for augmentation of optical fibre connectivity between rural areas and block headquarters in various parts of the country.
Any message for the service providers or the operators of the country.?
We provide funds to service providers on the basis of competitive bids. Major telecom operators such as BSNL, Tata Teleservices, Reliance and others have been actively taking part in various projects and activities of USO Fund