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Ethereal connections

Ethereal connections

Pranab Mukherjee has just announced, in his budget speech, a three-year plan to provide broadband connectivity to all 250,000 panchayats in the country. The plan was mentioned in a single line within a section of his speech titled “Strengthening Inclusion".

Even from a purely infrastructure perspective, this is an audacious plan. According to a report by technology advisory company Analysys Mason published in December, titled Deployment Models?and?Required?Investments for Developing Rural Broadband Infrastructure in India, the project could cost the government around Rs39,700 crore.

The report estimates that around 40% of this amount will go towards just laying fibre. The remaining will have to be invested over subsequent years on computers, laptops, mobile phones and other access-point equipments and services.

But don’t buy telecom stock just yet. First, this is by no means a new scheme. The idea of connecting panchayats is at least a year old, and has been referred to in election manifestoes going back to 2009. Don’t expect any uncharacteristic haste in implementation. Second, as has been reported recently by The Economic Times, there is a strong opinion within the government that the project should be handed over to BSNL. With the state telco struggling to keep pace with the private sector, the broadband project will be a welcome shot in the arm.

There is even more to be wary of if you are a consumer.

According to the Economic Survey, more than 60,000 villages in the country still don’t have a public telephone connection. This even as the government is sitting on a Universal Service Obligation Fund of almost Rs14,000 crore. There is little reason to believe that the government will show greater urgency in the case of broadband.

But what could undermine the plan is that old bugaboo: usability. What will rural India do with this broadband?

If the idea is to put people within reach of information, then we have a challenge that is perhaps greater than that of infrastructure. The government also needs to invest in content and services, including e-governance, that make sense to these panchayats.

In an IAMAI survey published in September, 84% of 14,392 rural respondents in seven states said they didn’t use the Internet because they weren’t aware of it. More alarmingly, 38% said they didn’t feel the need to use it.

Rural broadband connectivity: inclusion or political stunt? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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