The previous UPA II government dithered badly on making rural India digital as it laid only 350 km of optical fibre in about two-and-a-half years. However, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government gave a major push to the project and laid over 248,000 km of optical fibre in the last three-and-a-half years. As a result, around 1 lakh gram panchayats, covering 3 lakh villages, are all set to roll out high-speed broadband services by this month’s end.

The Manmohan Singh government launched the project under National Optical Fibre Network (NoFN) on 25 October 2011. The target was to lay 3 lakh km of optical fibre across the country in order to connect 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. But by 2014, only 350 km of optical fibre was laid.

However, the Modi government relaunched the project under a new name, BharatNet, in 2015. As on 10 December 2017, 2.48 lakh km (in 1.05 lakh gram panchayats) has been covered under the project, out of which 82,540 gram panchayats are ready to provide broadband services. The ministry hopes that 1 lakh gram panchayats, covering 3 lakh villages, will be operational on BharatNet infrastructure by December. As per Ministry figures, 2,072 km of optical fibre is being laid every week.

Interestingly, under the UPA II, the first deadline (of covering 3 lakh km) was December 2013. However, due to a slow start, it was extended to December 2017. The NDA government is trying to make first phase of BharatNet operational by this month end. The BharatNet network is capable of providing scaleable bandwidth of upto 1 GBPS.

Last month, the Ministry of Telecom, headed by Manoj Sinha, set the ball rolling for the second and final phase of BharatNet project with an outlay of Rs 34,000 crore to provide high speed broad net in all the panchayats by March 2019. Under the Bharat Net II, the government plans to connect 1.5 lakh gram panchayats through 10 lakh km of additional optical fibre and give brandwidth to telecom players for broadband and WiFi services in the rural parts of the country.

With optical fibre connectivity now available in more than 1 lakh gram panchayats, the Ministry of Telecom has initiated discussions on delivering broadband-enabled citizen services in these locations. A national conference was held in the capital last month with states and service providers. Telecom companies like Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone and Idea have expressed interest in providing last mile connectivity on Bharat Net infrastructure. Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance Jio, in fact, handed over advance cheques to the government during the conference against the leasing of BharatNet infrastructure.

While the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) will roll out optical fibres in eight states—Assam, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim—the Power Grid Corporation of India will do the work in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Odisha under the second phase of BharatNet.

Minister of State for Telecommunications Manoj Sinha said the ministry took several steps to increase the pace of the project. “We smoothened the process of equipment procurement by decentralising it. In July this year, the Union Cabinet approved a strategy involving states along with Central public sector undertakings and private sector, in order to make a win-win situation. States are important stakeholders as the broadband can be used for citizen centric services based on e-governance model,” he said, adding “BharatNet will bring about a new era of connectivity and empowerment and will help India become fully digital.”