Modi Repeats Old Digital India Promise, But It Needs New Energy
An attendee uses his mobile phone during an event to raise awareness on fake news in Balgera village in the district of Gadwal, Telangana in June 2018. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Modi Repeats Old Digital India Promise, But It Needs New Energy

BloombergQuintOpinion

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the occasion of Independence Day, longtime observers of India’s telecom and broadband policy may have noticed a perplexing statement he made. That in the next 1,000 days, all villages in India will be connected by optical fiber. Many, including the information technology minister, hailed this as a game changer for India. However, this announcement isn’t a new one..

The National Optical Fiber Network project was first approved in 2011 and aimed to provide broadband connectivity to all gram panchayats in India, at the time approximately 2.5 lakh in number. A gram panchayat may consist of a single village or a cluster of villages, so the intent to cover villages dates back a decade.

In 2015, the project, behind schedule by then, was renamed BharatNet - to be implemented in three phases.

  • Phase 1 covered 1 lakh gram panchayats,
  • Phase 2 is covering 1.5 lakh gram pachayats,
  • Phase 3 is focused on upgrading existing infrastructure.

Though the original project deadline to complete phase 1 was October 2014, an RTI response shows it was actually completed in December 2017. The revised deadline for completion of phase 2 was March 2019, but has now been pushed to August 2021, though as of August 8, 2020 optic fibre cables have been laid in 1.55 lakh gram panchayats of the total target of 2.5 lakh.

To be sure, the project was heavily delayed in the initial years and work has picked up pace under the current government. Further, the government learnt from issues faced in phase 1, primarily the excess centralisation, where the project was implemented only through central public sector units (BSNL, RailTel and Powergrid) with no participation from states or the private sector.

In phase 2, four different models for implementation have been used - state led, private sector-led, CPSU model and PPP model. The government has also utilised satellite technology to provide connectivity in areas where fibre laying is not possible due to the terrain, like in the North-East states and Jammu and Kashmir.

Let’s assume that the Prime Minister’s statement indicates the BharatNet project will go beyond gram panchayats to broadband connectivity at the level of each village. This was already announced by the government in the National Broadband Mission in December 2019 with a deadline of 2022.

So counting 1,000 days from August 2020 suggests the government already knows it is going to default on a deadline announced less than a year ago.
A girl uses a smart phone while sitting outside her house in the village of Sawantwadi in Beed district, Maharashtra. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A girl uses a smart phone while sitting outside her house in the village of Sawantwadi in Beed district, Maharashtra. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Infrastructure And Creating Demand

Almost all activities in our everyday lives – work, education, entertainment, socialising, shopping etc – are moving online. The internet has also played a crucial role in broadcasting information and data related to Covid-19. Internet access has ensured that facilities such as online education, telemedicine, work communication, governance and legal institutions have continued to function. A report published by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in 2018 found that a 10% increase in mobile internet traffic can boost GDP by 1.6%.

The latest TRAI data (May 2020) shows broadband level internet is only available to around 50% of the population. Further, the same data shows that some of the poorest states in India are also worse off in terms of tele density.

The India Internet 2019 report shows that rural India has half the internet penetration as urban, and twice as many users who access the internet less than once a week. BharatNet is supposed to be the backbone for digital service delivery in rural areas in India. Hence, the delays in its implementation have a cascading effect on the lived realities of rural citizens.

The solution here needs to focus on two aspects; infrastructure and creating demand.

With a lot of state governance and service delivery functions also moving online, states have an equal stake in this, and need to be given a primary role in infrastructure creation.

The centre should limit its role to funding, monitoring and coordination between different union departments and allow states to actually deal with on ground implementation. For example, the centre can work with the Department of Space to allocate unused or underutilised satellite bandwidth to areas which cannot be connected through optical fibre due to issues with the terrain. Similarly, states would be better placed to deal with right of way issues, which have plagued the implementation of BharatNet across the country. While the centre can create an overall framework to focus on quality, accessibility and maintenance standards, states should be given the freedom to decide the implementation model, whether they want to build infrastructure through state PSUs or invite the private sector to create infrastructure in a Public-Private Partnership model.

Currently, per user data consumption on BharatNet is 0.2 Gb per month, which is not enough to incentivise private operators to start providing services.

Demand creation is important because BharatNet is supposed to generate revenue and is designed to create plug and play infrastructure, where telecom operators can use the infrastructure created to provide services.
An official holds a handwritten note of distributed rations at a state-run store in a village in Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh on Aug. 7, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
An official holds a handwritten note of distributed rations at a state-run store in a village in Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh on Aug. 7, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

The solution here is two-fold.

First, the government needs to ramp up its digital literacy program and increase the coverage target from the current miniscule figure of six crore citizens, while also incentivising CSR contributions to digital literacy training. As levels of digital literacy rise, people will get acquainted with navigating the internet and the benefits accruing from it and this will lead to an increase in demand.

Secondly, to ensure that no citizen is left behind, the government should consider subsidising telecom operators to provide mobile internet services to segments of the population below the poverty line and living in areas where commercial services are currently not viable due to lack of demand.

Similar models have worked in different countries. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been running a lifeline program since 1985, which provides discounted phone and internet service in poorer communities. On March 31, 2016, the Commission adopted a comprehensive reform and modernisation of the Lifeline program. In the 2016 Lifeline Modernization Order , the Commission included broadband as a support service in the Lifeline program.

In Australia, the Australian Broadband Guarantee program was started in 2007, in response to data which showed that internet services were not available for rural and remote areas. The program was ended in 2011 after it was found that the number of underserved premises in Australia has fallen from over 9,25,000 at the start of the program to 1,60,000. This was attributed to both the program itself, as well as the demand created for commercial internet services through the functioning of the program.

It is important that a subsidy program of this nature have a sunset clause, because the purpose here is not affordability, rather its aim is to create demand.

Bharat’s need for internet connectivity is extremely urgent, both for accessing state services and information as well as for personal consumption. Internet access is needed to ensure that India does not create a new class of digitally poor citizens to add to our inequalities. As India moves forward, Bharat should not be left behind.

Sumeysh Srivastava is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Some of the solutions mentioned here were originally suggested by the author in Vidhi’s Briefing Book 2020.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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