The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has urged the government to sell off assets of Bharat Broadband Network Ltd, the state-owned company founded six years ago to bring rural Indian connectivity up to speed, and allow private players to run it.
Trai wants the department of telecommunications to auction off the assets being built under the BharatNet mission, which aims to provide broadband network to a quarter of a million village councils. This comes against the backdrop of concerns at what it sees as poor utilization of digital infrastructure built by the government under BharatNet.
“Over ₹17,000 crore has been spent already on BharatNet. No results can be seen. There is no utilisation...Public money has been wasted and it will become a serious problem for the government," a senior official at Trai said requesting anonymity.
“Trai has suggested that government should auction BharatNet infrastructure on ‘as is where is’ basis. The idea is that wherever infrastructure creation has not been completed, the private player can step in with the government’s support in form of viability gap funding, if needed, and complete it and maintain it for 20 years, market it and earn revenue," the official cited above said.
“It becomes a PPP (public private partnership) model then. Your investment gets taken over. And the money required by the government to complete the infrastructure creation will come down," the official said.
The regulator’s recommendations come after a high-level meeting last month at the Prime Minister’s Office to take stock of the mission.
BharatNet, earlier called the National Optical Fibre Network started by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2012, is a flagship mission to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with broadband. The government has completed laying optical fibre cables across over 100,000 gram panchayats in the first phase and aims to complete connecting the remaining 150,000 councils by March 2019, with private sector participation.
The mission is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle set up under DoT in February 2012.
The government earlier this month removed senior DoT official Sanjay Singh who was holding the position of Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) administrator and chairman-cum-managing director (CMD) of BBNL. Last week, Indian Revenue Service officer Sarvesh Singh was appointed CMD of BBNL in place of Sanjay Singh. On 14 January, Bihar cadre IAS officer Ansuli Arya was appointed USOF administrator.
The administrative changes reflect the government’s concern over the programme’s progress and under-utilization of network, especially ahead of general elections due later this year given that digital connectivity was a key election promise of the government.
To be sure, the telecom regulator sent separate recommendations on BharatNet implementation to the government way back in February 2016 where it suggested that the government evolve a build-own-operate-transfer model that aligns private incentives with long term service delivery.
Trai had then suggested that the scope of the concessionaire’s work should include both deployment and implementation of optical fibre cable as well as operating the network for the concession period. It proposed that concessionaires be selected by way of reverse bidding.
As of 20 January 2018, over 300,000km of fibre optic cable had been laid and 116,000 gram panchayats have been connected with fibre and equipment. Wi-Fi has been installed in just 39,379 gram panchayats and is operational in only 12,528 gram panchayats.
An email query sent to DoT was unanswered at press time.