My dear readers, as I write to you this week, I am a bit unhappy. While I would like to apologize for the tone of my piece, I would also like to say that I have some expectations of you, which is the reason I’m writing this.
I hope it is not wrong to assume that most of you reading this column speak English. I may also not be wrong in assuming that all of you are connected to the Internet and have mobile phones. I also believe that you must be paying taxes, if not personal income tax, then certainly various indirect taxes that you are charged on any product or service that you consume or purchase.
Now, with your tax money, the government is supposed to fulfil its various administrative, Constitutional and civic duties towards its citizens. The money that you give to the government (in the form of taxes) to connect millions of Indians (who live in villages with little or no access to information), to the Internet has still not been used for the purpose.
Rural India is still deprived of the use of the Internet because your money, paid as taxes, and a portion of which was allocated to connect millions of Indians who live in rural and remote areas, hasn’t actually been able to make the Internet accessible to the masses.
A significant amount of that public money, to the tune of Rs70,000 crore, is meant to be used to connect every panchayat of the country to the Internet through a 100 mbps line. This ambitious project, which was initiated in 2011, was called the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) and renamed BharatNet in 2015. For this, a special purpose vehicle called the Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) was created.
The mission of this public sector undertaking was to lay the incremental optic fibre cable from block level to panchayat level across the country. Please note that the NOFN is not an Internet Service Provider (ISP) but its a pipeline from the block level to the panchayat level that enables access to the Internet.
In most places at the block level, the Internet service provider (ISP) that provides access to the Internet is Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL).
It appears as though the formation of the BBNL and the allocation of funds for the NOFN project was to make BSNL sustainable rather than expect it to actually provide seamless connectivity to the rural population.
BSNL is responsible for offering the Internet to those who live in villages. Local organizations and institutions like health centres, schools, NGOs, households, who seek Internet connectivity at the village level, have to pay Rs700 per month for the BBNL’s incremental fibre cable that is laid between block and panchayat, besides paying the cost of the Internet as per the tariff of BSNL.
In other words, for every MB of Internet connectivity that you would have bought from BSNL at the panchayat level, you now have to add Rs700 per month to that and you still have no other service provider but BSNL.
Tell me, dear “connected" readers who have the luxury to pick their service providers, how do those who live in remote and rural areas—and those whose lives can change if they get connected to the information highway—deal with a situation where BSNL is the only ISP?
In most of the places, BSNL remains a provider of erratic and non-functional connectivity. When the government raised the hopes of villagers of accessing the Internet at large, the villagers did not know that all they were going to get is a non-functional BSNL line.
Interestingly, in the last four years, the overall number of Internet users in India has increased from 137 million to 371 million, and most of this growth can be attributed to private telecom players.
In almost the same period, BBNL has only been able to lay incremental network cables across 139,582km (as of May 2016). While the government claims to have reached 61,000 gram panchayats (out of a total of 250,000), only 7,000 of them have a working network. Unfortunately or ironically, at most of these 7,000-odd panchayats, there are almost no users or usage of the Internet through the network laid under the BharatNet project.
The reason I am upset is because you readers are not questioning the government on why your tax money has not been used for the purpose it was committed for. Why are so many of your unconnected fellow citizens still living in information darkness? We need to know from the government how many people have actually been connected to the Internet through BharatNet. We must ask the government to provide us the actual numbers.
Honestly, I doubt whether BharatNet’s Rs70,000 crore budget even managed to rustle up 70,000 Internet users. We need accountability for every rupee.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra – 15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.