Connecting all the panchayats in the country

R Chandrashekhar, Secretary, Department of Telecommunication, and Chairman, Telecom Commission, in an exclusive interview with eGov magazine, talks about the initiatives that the government has taken to improve connectivity in the rural areas and give rise to a range of citizen friendly online and mobile based services

R ChandrashekharTell us about your plans to bring connectivity to the rural areas.

The Government is taking many initiatives to connect the panchayats in our rural areas. The Union Cabinet approved the creation of the scheme called National Optical Fibre Network  (NOFN) in October 2011. The scheme aims to connect all the panchayats in the country with  high-speed optical fibre lines. The core infrastructure of the optical fibre will extend to every corner of our rural areas and it will enable the service providers to cater to large number of new  subscribers. The scheme to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas will  approximately cost `20,000 crores, as we are talking about covering approximately 2,50,000 panchayats.

What kind of speed can we expect from optical fibre network?

The speed will be fairly high. The aim is to have 100 megabits in the initial stages. After  that it can go up to multiple gigabits. An outstanding feature of the optical fibre network is  that it is scalable to any extent. It is not necessary for all the service providers to create this kind of infrastructure, as the outlay is fairly high. That is why the government has made  provisions for USO (Universal Service Obligation) fund. This will lead to service becoming  available to all service providers on a non-discriminatory basis, up to the panchayat level. We are also doing our best to ensure that the entity does not acquire competitive  aspirations, as that will lead to conflict of interests.

Can you tell us about the funding issues that are part of this massive project?

Normally it is the USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund) that funds all the rural  infrastructure projects. But this is a project of such massive magnitude. It is going to all the  2,50,000 gram panchyats, so the USOF route might not be the best way of doing it. We  have decided that it is in everyone’s best interests if the entire project got funded by the  government. Therefore a new company called Bharat Broadband Network Ltd has been created to execute this project. Now to work on this massive project, BBNL would have  required a massive organisational structure. This was not feasible. So it was decided that  BBNL would act as a lead organisation and it would get its work done primarily through  outsourcing. Three main companies to whom the work is being outsourced happen to be  names like BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid. These companies have already done lot of work  with optical fibre networks.

How is the project progressing?

The project involves lying of optical fibre along the roads, and also along the railway lines.  We are talking about huge geographical areas, so some kinds of problems at local level will  always be there. Some local bodies and even state governments tend to get short sighted and  they charge huge amounts for laying these optical fibres. Such behaviour has led to a  slowing down in the development of the project. In the draft of the new telecom policy it is  clearly mentioned that telecom is critical for the nation’s economy. Revenue generation is  important, but it cannot be the sole focus of government policy as far as the telecom sector is concerned. In order to ensure a hassle free development of the project, a tripartite  agreement has been signed between the state governments, the DOT and the USOF  Administration. I must also add that many states have been very supportive of the project.  They have realised the value of e-Governance, e-Commerce, e-Health and e-Education.

According to you what are the key features of the project?

One important feature is that optical fibre will not be laid in a place where it already exists; however, the fibre will be taken from the existing owner of the infrastructure in order to  ensure that there is no duplication or redundancy. Secondly, the services from the project  are being made available to everyone on a non discriminatory basis. We are incorporating  various service quality systems to ensure that the consumers get the best possible quality of services.

A project of this magnitude must
face many problems. Please tell us about these.

We are facing quite a few problems. The foremost amongst these has to do with deadline. It is  quite difficult to complete such a large project in two years that the cabinet has allotted  us. Even bigger problem is one of utilisation of resources that are created through the  project. The data services have to be used for tele-education, tele-health, skill development  and such critical areas. Currently data services account for 10 percent of the revenues, which could go up to 50 percent in the coming years. So the idea of creating a broadband network is not limited to just laying down the fibre  optic cables, you also have to build an entire ecosystem of applications and services. The private sector companies can take this industry forward as they have the capabilities for developing the entire eco-system. The idea is also to stabilise the broadband space, while the creation of the ecosystem goes on.

“High quality broadband can be made available at village levels at low cost”

Is there any option for auctioning of bandwidth to enable services in rural areas?

Auctioning of bandwidth might not be a good idea in this case, as it might lead to a  derailment of the entire project. The whole idea behind the project is to make the service  available at most affordable cost, so that there is value addition in terms of connectivity and  costs. The affordability factor can be easily calibrated to whatever extent required, as  it is the government money that is being utilised. The priority for the government is not to  earn significant returns on the investment. The priority is to create positive impact on the society and on the economy.

What about mobile broadband services in rural areas? How will mobile services be impacted by the Optic Fibre network?
For high quality mobile broadband services, there is the need for reliable backbone. That is precisely what the optical fibres are there to provide. Lot of broadband applications require landline connection. In fact, the scope of 3G availability in rural areas is bound to get  enhanced by this project. Very high quality broadband can also be made available in the village levels at very low cost.

What can be done to encourage
manufacturing of hardware in the country?

It is true that we are not that advanced when it comes to manufacturing hardware for  telecom and electronics. There is a challenge of ensuring that domestic manufacturing of  equipment takes place at affordable costs and under technological standards that are at par  with global ideas. The support from government on the electronic policy front has been carefully structured after taking the international obligations into account.

What kind of impact will
broadband connectivity in rural areas have on financial inclusion?

We are working with other government departments to ensure that the telecom sector gets to play a major role in furthering the agenda  of financial inclusion. We are in the process of developing the linkages between credential inclusion, the ID, the mobile number and the bank account. The work is under progress. We are also working closely with the IT  department to ensure the development of e-health, e-education and a range of e-Governance  systems.

Do you think that the cancellation of some of the telecom licences could have an  effect on the quality of services we are having in the country?

Even though some of the licenses have been cancelled, the policy is being weaved in such a way that a level of competition is assured. The level of coverage in urban areas is almost 70  percent. Expansion into the rural areas is guaranteed. The coming up of optical fibre  networks will serve the purpose of keeping the costs down.