Home >industry >telecom >National Optical Fibre Network plan likely to miss first target

New Delhi: The 20,000 crore National Optical Fibre Network plan that aims to connect 250,000 gram panchayats (village councils) across the country with high-speed Internet access is likely to miss its first target of linking 100,000 gram panchayats by March.

The three state-run companies tasked with the job of laying optical fibre cable are progressing at the rate of 500km per month, much slower than the 30,000km per month rate needed to meet the government’s ambitious target of covering 100,000 villages, according to the minutes of a department of telecommunications (DoT) review meeting, headed by telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. A copy of the minutes of the meeting was reviewed by Mint.

Missing the initial deadline is likely to cause further delays in implementation of the ambitious project that eventually seeks to connect 250,000 gram panchayats by the end of 2016 with high-speed Internet links, allowing citizens to access government records and submit applications.

The minutes further said that while Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) had started work in 14 of the 15 states allotted to it for laying fibre, the other two companies—RailTel Corp. of India Ltd and Power Grid Corp. of India Ltd—have started work in only one out of the 10 and four states allotted to them, respectively. The slow progress of RailTel and PowerGrid has led to a proposal, made in the meeting, to allocate more states to BSNL.

A decision on this will be taken by Bharat Broadband Network Ltd, the company set up by the government to manage and operate the optical fibre network, after discussions with all entities involved in the project, according to the minutes.

The network will form the backbone on which much of the current government’s Digital India plan will depend. The Digital India plan also envisages setting up of connected smart cities and make India self-reliant in electronics manufacturing.

The government had initially targeted to connect all 250,000 villages with optical fibre in the country by 2017. This target was later advanced by Prasad to December 2016.

Right of way or the permission from local civic authorities to dig trenches and lay cables have been the cause of slow progress in some areas, especially Tamil Nadu.

On Tuesday, Prasad told reporters that the proposed high-speed fibre network had been in limbo for the past three years and his government had energized the whole scheme. The minister was referring to the fact that the plan had already missed the March 2014 deadline set by the previous government.

BSNL is also facing some unique problems, especially in the communication minister’s home state of Bihar as well as some parts of Haryana. Many of the nodal officers of BSNL supervising the construction of the network have complained of the lack of accommodation at gram panchayats to house necessary equipment needed to provide access to users.

“The majority of GPs (gram panchayats) do not have a building available and have no plans to build one. In some places where there is a building, there is no electricity connection," one of the nodal officers wrote in a letter to the Bihar chief secretary last month.

The delays are being seen as another reason to involve non-state entities in the rollout of the network.

“It is important to involve private players in the project, at least via PPP (public-private partnership). We have not used all the available resources as yet," said Hemant Joshi, a partner at Deloitte, Haskins and Sells.

Last month, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman Rahul Khullar also made a case for involving private companies, saying that the government needs to revisit the plans and entrust more work to private companies as it could be more cost-effective and efficient.

“It is a complex process with a number of issues ranging from state to municipalities, among others. You have to take all that into account. Directionally, we are in the right place and it will happen. Eventually, we will get there," Joshi added.

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