New Delhi: The government claims to have connected 59 village councils with high-speed Internet connections in a pilot project, as part of a programme to provide communications, health and government services on tap to the remotest corners of the nation. The reality, according to a survey by a non-profit group, is anything but that.

The survey by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) found that only 67% of the panchayats were connected to the fibre-optic backbone in the pilot phase of the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project, while the rest had no means to access the services that the NOFN network can potentially enable.

In addition, even in the villages that were connected to the network, the average broadband speed was found to be 50Mbps, half of what the government has promised, the survey found.

The 20,000 crore NOFN project aims to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with high-capacity optical fibre cable, laying the required infrastructure to provide citizen’s access to government services, including banking and providing land records, birth and death certificates to citizens.

The project is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a special purpose company set up by the government to build and manage the network.

Some analysts say a project of this scale is bound to face initial hiccups.

“Considering the geographical spread of the country, there are going to be hiccups on the way. We believe that this project would have very positive ripple effects on the rural economy. There are credible studies which show that there is a direct correlation between broadband connectivity and GDP growth," said Hemant Joshi, a partner at Deloitte Haskins & Sells. “Broadband would result in bringing best in class of healthcare, education and banking reaching rural masses which would help in elevating poverty and improving standard of livings in the rural India."

NOFN was initially scheduled to be rolled out in a phased manner beginning December 2012, with the pilot project scheduled for completion by October 2012. As these targets were missed, the new government initially declared December 2017 as the completion target, but later advanced this by a year. As of October 2012, 59 gram panchayats included in the pilot project have been provided with 100Mbps bandwidth, according to the department of telecommunications (DoT) 2013-2014 annual report.

Funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), NOFN is targeted to be completed by December 2016. The USOF is a fund created for the provision of communications services in areas of the country where it is economically unviable to build telecom infrastructure.

“The completion of the NOFN project is just not only laying the fibre cable," said Osama Manzar, co-author of the report and founder-director of DEF, which works in the area of the digital divide. “It has to function seamlessly." The implementation of the project should be monitored extremely meticulously, Manzar said.

BBNL refuted the claims of the survey.

“There is no question of any uneven distribution among Gram Panchayats. In the three Pilots at Arain, Parvada, and Panisagar Blocks, all the Gram Panchayats in respective Blocks have been connected with NOFN bandwidth of 100Mbps," Anil Kumar Gupta, senior general manager (operation) of BBNL, said in an emailed response to queries.

BBNL has, however, outsourced the on-ground implementation of NOFN to state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), Railtel and Power Grid Corp. Ltd.

Last week, the government declared Idukki district, with eight block offices and 52 gram panchayats, as the first district in the country to be connected by the NOFN. Kerala is expected to be the first state to be completely connected by March this year.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation.

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