Salvaging Digital India :: Need a Critical ReTHINK on Bharatnet :: A tete-a-tete with Shivaji Chatterjee

Shivaji Chatterjee

In what can be ascribed as an iconoclastic daring to call for a serious rethink into the entire scope, expanse and underlying assumptions & belief systems concerning one of India’s most ambitious & transformational projects Bharatnet, Shivaji Chatterjee of Hughes Communications talked at length with ReTHINK INDIA. For this old industry hand, named after the legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan and educated in Mumbai, this comes out quite naturally and as expected, the conversation was informative and incisive.

RI: The Telecom Commission has approved a revised strategy for a three-phase implementation of the BharatNet project whereby the second phase is envisaged to provide connectivity to all 2,50,500 gram panchayats in the country using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines, radio and satellite media by December 2018. What you have to say on this?

SC :: At the onset, the acknowledgement by the Telecom Commission to use other media like satellite and radio is heartening. India is a diverse country and will need the best of technologies to combine well to provide a ubiquitous and integrated solution. The Secretary Telecom has himself pointed out that for the success in phase-2, which will also involve laying of OFC over electricity poles, the participation of states will be important. Given the current political state of affairs, how much of it would get really accomplished, however remains to be seen.

It’s relieving that the policy planners are seeing the value in going above the ground, at least to the height of electrical poles to lay the OFCs which shall entail lower costs, speedier implementation, easy maintenance and utilisation of existing power line infrastructure.

But the moot question remains in rethinking and overhauling the entire strategy from the first principles.

RI :: Would you like to further elaborate this aspect of a complete overhaul & rethink of Bharatnet strategy?

SC :: See, world over governments are somehow bound by an unwritten convention and being a stickler for continuity of a policy doctrine. This at times is irrespective of the fact that technological advances might have outpaced the veracity and validity of an earlier assumption onto which a particular policy and an ambitious plan was devised with much fanfare. Bureaucracies desist such disruptions as it somewhere tends to question their authority and capability of keeping pace with the times.

This has been encountered by Bharatnet as well. Just look at some of the facts. BharatNet, originally envisaged as National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) in 2011 has already missed several deadlines. While in 2014-15, plans were afoot to execute work for 1 lakh Gram Panchayats, which was later scaled down to 50,000. Data upto March 2015 showed that only 20,000 could be covered till then.

Even as on August 28th, 2016 data on BBNL portal reveal that OFC Pipe to the tune of 1,55,947 Kms have been laid covering 68,535 Gram Panchayats out of which OFC has reached only 57,809 of them, which is still around one-fifth of the overall target.

At a time when BBNL is struggling with the issues of Optimal Network Termination Equipment and the all-pervading issue of Right-of-Way amidst a politically volatile and deadlock ridden epoch, even the revised deadline of March 2017 to reach to 100,000 Gram Panchayats look utterly ambitious.

Also, laying the fiber to the last mile is not the end of it. Bharatnet has to be seen as an integral part of Digital India vision and not in absolute isolation. Have the 50K odd Gram Panchayats which have been served with OFC, been digitally amplified in the rightful sense of the term?

Merely boosting the operational efficiency of laying the OFC won’t suffice the cause. It would need an entirely different ecosystem driven approach altogether. Also, the gospel truth of 100 Mbps needs to be questioned and evaluated in due synchronization with our digital preparedness.

RI :: You seem to be questioning the cardinal principles of Bharatnet. What instigates you do so?

SC :: You would need to go deeper into the genesis of NOFN (aka Bharatnet). It was more a project inspired from the effective utilization of the burgeoning Universal Obligation Service Fund (USOF) which has swelled to Rs 78,587 crores till date out of which a mere Rs 31,175.75 crores has been allocated under various projects. When you have more than enough funds at disposal, you tend to conceive schemes which are over-ambitious and intractable from the very onset.

Have our policy planners evaluated the justification of a 100 Mbps odd fibre at the last mile? Have they even thought of the requisite applications which shall be delivered out of this mammoth infrastructure which would need substantial maintenance to sustain? Have they been oblivious of the gradual evolutionary growth of India’s Telecom Sector which took a while to reach upto the 4G revolution?

Leveraging the existing fibre optical network of Central utilities – BSNL, RailTel and PowerGrid – and laying incremental fibre wherever necessary to bridge the connectivity gap between panchayats and blocks, looks a viable proposition on paper. But in practice, it too shall be happening practically not before 2023 as per the revised timelines and strategy. The interim deadline of December 2018 would be retrofitted by a mix of interventions though, over which again, there is no clarity as such. The onus seems to have been shifted to the states per se.

It thereby seems to be a broken precept altogether whereby the entire well-meaning strategic intent of Digital India programme would be lost. Without expedient connectivity, where would there be any Digital India?

RI :: Is there a way out? Do you think Digital India can be salvaged?

SC :: Why not? We do have a wonderful case study back home whereby the landline telephony was surpassed by the mobile telecom revolution. By a smart invocation of mobility, India has been able to boast of one of the highest teledensity in the world. The same can be orchestrated for the broadband frontier as well.

RI :: Would you like to further elaborate upon this?

SC :: With the advent of high-throughput satellites, you can achieve the similar cellular topography that mobile towers do provide facilitating satellite based broadband services at par with that of DSL based ones.

To simplify the discourse, what has been achieved in the entertainment world through the DTH technology, the same is possible in the broadband world as well making it a kind of a plug and play service, anywhere and everywhere. As far as the affordability is concerned, over a million consumers in US access broadband through VSATs and pay almost the similar order as that by DSL consumers.

By 2019, when the OneWeb project – a geosynchronous constellation of 800-odd low orbit satellites – becomes available, the world would be receiving satellite broadband in the order of Terabytes. By that count, doesn’t the 2023 timeline of getting the entire nation dotted with OFC seems to be preposterous?

RI :: So what stops our advancements in the Satellite Broadband space?

SC :: I think, the conventional clamour around OFC has been so profound that saner voices have probably not reached the right levels of policy evaluation & strategic thinking so as to consider a National Satellite Network (NSN) powered by private-public partnership – at par with that of a NOFN.

Second, the bid to save on the investments made so far and to defend the existing policy doctrine is yet another psychological hurdle. Scrapping or limiting an old design is a sacrilege, perhaps.

Third, nobody, seems to have prepared a simple bandwidth utilization chart as well. Just because 100 Mbps would fit in everything, no need was thereby felt to optimize and find alternatives.

Fourth, the policy doctrine somewhere recognizes the use of SATCOM limited to that of DTH in the consumer space. This can be deciphered from the very fact that the CAG Report no. 22 of 2014 maintains its commentary around DTH alone.

Fifth, despite our serious advances in space technology, we still are to catch up on developing high throughput satellites. The almost exclusive control enjoyed by DoS organizations make the narrative cumbersome taking undue advantage of the official upper hand.

RI :: Are you saying that we are technologically unprepared when it comes to space technology pertaining to Satellite Broadband?

SC :: To an extent yes. Our indigenous satellite programme has no doubt accomplished significant strides on almost all frontiers. Nevertheless, if you evaluate closely, the overtly visible accomplishments in terms of launching satellites surpasses advancements in other dimensions of space technology.

Developing high-throughput satellites commensurate to standards of highly optimized commercial communications is still an area to be championed. This would nevertheless, need a strategic relook around the creation of a SATCOM regime in the country.

Merely, stifling the potential of the creation of a ubiquitous satellite based broadband connectivity, by pronouncing unestablished concerns of national security, doesn’t somewhere fit the national aspirations and what is best for the citizens of our country, neither following current evolution of satellite constellations nor satcom policies that are followed globally.

RI :: So in your opinion, what should be the optimal broadband mix in the country so as to reap the dividends of a Digital India?

SC :: If you see, India has been a pioneer in a large number of areas. Being the largest democracy, we are probably the largest and early adopters of Electronic Voting Machines, which is reaping us sufficient dividends. Our Unique Identity Programme AADHAR has probably laid one of the most authentic identity verification platforms in the world. On a similar line, why can’t we be the most pervasive broadband nation of the world by adopting a right strategic mix of means of connectivity.

The existing and the emerging Urban Hubs can well be dotted intricately with the OFC as the biggest action and consumption of bandwidth would lie here. The extent to which the BSNL, Railtel and Powergrid OFC has been laid out can be utilized to serve this growing urban phenomenon.

The far flung rural hubs can be served on Radio or Satellite duly coupling the installations with the local needs. This would ensure a regime of quick installation, fractional costs and lesser maintenance efforts which remains the bane of such mission critical services. The entire challenge of Right-of-Way in rural hinterlands can be bypassed in one go. This can be considered as a serious interim option as well as a fallback mechanism to digitally connect a vast country as that of ours.

RI :: What all would be required to accentuate this? What would be your submission to the Prime Minister?

SC :: I think the right deterministic leadership is out there to make this happen provided the logic and rationale gets impinged upon from an objective first principles manner. The recommendations of several expert bodies are already there in place.

The technological competence is out there; the requisite funds are in ample amount. Just that the daring to add upon another dimension of connectivity to accomplish the strategic objectives of Digital India need to be put in place. It can be a rightful mid-course correction indeed which shall be cherished by the people at large, if not the officials in particular.

In his bid for transforming India, the Prime Minister should re-evaluate & rethink the entire strategy and plan around Bharatnet – keeping the practicality of a quick, ubiquitous deployment of satellite to gram panchayats in mind. He just needs to take the success of his own initiative as the Chief Minister of Gujarat eight years back, when he deployed satellite at each of Gujarat’s 13,500 villages and transformed the e-Governance model in the state.

The invocation of the unit of Family became the sole game-changer resulting in Jandhan overdrive. I am firm and confident, that incorporation of Satellite based broadband would result in a similar such experience for Digital India, which should lay more emphasis on application and content ecosystem.

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