Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Digital India programme is in serious danger of being derailed if the pace of work of the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN), which aims to link the country’s 2.5 lakh villages through high-speed broadband services, is anything to go by.
At a recent review meeting chaired by department of telecommunications secretary Rakesh Garg, doubts were raised about completion of the project by March 2016, a deadline set by the Prime Minister’s Office. The DoT secretary cracked the whip, telling the BSNL officials involved in the project that it is being monitored at the highest level and tenders should be finalised by the end of the month.
The state-wise review of the project’s implementation threw up the fact that it was moving at a tardy pace in almost all of them with even tenders not in place till now. For instance, out of 1.2 lakh km of work to be done in the first phase ending March 2015, only 13,000 km of pipe and 7,400 km of cable have been laid so far. Work has started in only 455 blocks of the total 6,533 blocks earmarked for the first phase.
The R21,000-crore NOFN project is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Nigam, a subsidiary of state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL). The allocation of work between it and the other two state agencies — PowerGrid and RailTel — is in the ratio of 70:15:15. The aim is to connect all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country through optic fibre utilising existing fibres of BSNL, RailTel and PGCIL and laying incremental fibre wherever necessary to bridge the connectivity gap between gram panchayats and blocks for providing broadband connectivity. The entire project is to be executed in three phases, and entails laying about 7 lakh km of optic fibre.
“All circles were found to be lagging behind the schedule in issue of work orders. Many circles have invited tenders several times but could not finalise the tenders for one reason or another. Circles have now been advised to examine the reasons for failure in the first tender and take corrective measures so that tender is successful the second time,” an official who attended the review meeting told FE.
In addition, BSNL has been asked to draw up a detailed plan for states that are lagging far behind their deadline. In fact, the crisis is so serious that the telecom and IT secretaries have also decided to work on a plan for the expeditious implementation of the project.
Industry analysts have all along being critical of the project from the point of view that its implementation is being done by PSUs rather than awarding work to private sector agencies on a turnkey basis.
In fact, with the delays and a realisation in the top echelons that the deadline would be missed, DoT is also considering roping in private agencies. Under it, the plan is to divide the the entire country into zones and allocate private players to lay the network. In this outsourcing model, the role of the government would be only supervisory, setting benchmarks, providing incentives for completion of work on time and levying penalties in case of delays.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman Rahul Khullar has already criticised the project as too ambitious with unrealistic deadlines and called for a mid-course correction. Khullar’s view is that it would be simpler to first connect the metros and then look at connecting cities and panchayats in a gradual manner.