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Modi repeats old Digital India promise, but it needs new energy

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the occasion of Independence Day, longtime observers of India’s telecom and broadband policy may have noticed a perplexing statement he made. That in the next 1,000 days, all villages in India will be connected by optical fiber. Many, including the information technology minister, hailed this as a game changer for India. However, this announcement isn’t a new one.

The National Optical Fiber Network project was first approved in 2011 and aimed to provide broadband connectivity to all gram panchayats in India, at the time approximately 2.5 lakh in number. A gram panchayat may consist of a single village or a cluster of villages, so the intent to cover villages dates back a decade.

In 2015, the project, behind schedule by then, was renamed BharatNet – to be implemented in three phases.

Phase 1 covered 1 lakh gram panchayats,

Phase 2 is covering 1.5 lakh gram pachayats,

Phase 3 is focused on upgrading existing infrastructure.

Though the original project deadline to complete phase 1 was October 2014, an RTI response shows it was actually completed in December 2017. The revised deadline for completion of phase 2 was March 2019, but has now been pushed to August 2021, though as of optic fibre cables have been laid in 1.55 lakh gram panchayats of the total target of 2.5 lakh.

To be sure, the project was heavily delayed in the initial years and work has picked up pace under the current government. Further, the government learnt from issues faced in phase 1, primarily the excess centralisation, where the project was implemented only through central public sector units (BSNL, RailTel and Powergrid) with no participation from states or the private sector.

In phase 2, four different models for implementation have been used – state led, private sector-led, CPSU model and PPP model. The government has also utilised satellite technology to provide connectivity in areas where fibre laying is not possible due to the terrain, like in the North-East states and Jammu and Kashmir.

Let’s assume that the Prime Minister’s statement indicates the BharatNet project will go beyond gram panchayats to broadband connectivity at the level of each village. This was already announced by the government in the in December 2019 with a deadline of 2022. Bloomberg Quint

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