Digital India Week: Centre, states disagree over laying fibre network

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New Delhi | Updated: July 2, 2015 8:26:32 AM

National Optical Fibre Network project is way behind schedule and unlikely to be completed by its deadline of December 2016.

digital india week, narendra modiDigital India Week: PM Narendra Modi gestures while addressing the gathering during the launch of ‘Digital India Week’ in New Delhi, India, July 1, 2015. Modi urged more companies to make electronic and digital goods on Wednesday, reviving his campaign promise to bridge India’s digital divide backed by over billion in investment pledges. (Reuters)

The National Optical Fibre Network, a vital component of the Digital India initiative, is flailing amid right-of-way hurdles. While cascading delays in the flagship scheme that aims at plugging the rural connectivity gap have forced the Centre to seek the active intervention of states in getting the project back on track, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are among those that have made their intervention, conditional to them getting to take up their leg of the project entirely on their own.

According to officials involved in the exercise, the NOFN project — envisaged as a Centre-State joint effort where states were expected to contribute by way of waiving off right-of-way charges — is way behind schedule and unlikely to be completed by its deadline of December 2016.

While in 2014-15, it was planned to execute work for 1 lakh gram panchayats (GPs), which was later scaled down to 50,000 GPs, data up to March 2015 shows that only about 20,000 GPs were covered under the NOFN — just about 40 per cent of the planned target.

The NOFN project, officials said, is now being monitored on a weekly basis and a progress is being sent to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and other stakeholders every Monday.

A recent review done by the DoT shows that the biggest hurdle is the right-of-way issue. Despite the Centre having agreements with the state governments for getting the right-of-way available free of cost, officers involved in the implementation have reported back that “whenever they go to actually lay the optical fibre, they run into construction and population issues while even in the fields, the farmers have objections”.

As a counter, Andhra Pradesh has come up with a model under which it proposed to float its own corporation that will take up the work of laying the optic fibre cable network. It has communicated to the Centre that the funds earmarked to be spent for this project in their state should be handed over directly to them as support. They have indicated that they are willing to put in the rest of the money on their own as they want to further scale-up the project and utilise the infrastructure for multiple uses than what was originally envisaged by the Centre.

The Andhra Pradesh proposal has now been accorded a go-ahead by the Telecom Commission, following which Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have come up with a similar proposal for the implementation of the NOFN project, officials involved in the exercise said. The Centre is now looking at this option as a way to tide over the right-of-way hurdles.

“Since the Telecom Commission has given its ‘in principle’ approval to the Andhra Pradesh proposal, two more states have come up for this kind of a project. Tamil Nadu has shown interest. Another one is Gujarat. There may be more states which may come up, which will take up this project on their own. If they take up this project on their own, many problems will be resolved,” a senior DoT officer said.

Apart from the right-of-way issue, the other big challenge flagged by the implementation agencies is the lack of availability of contractors who can execute the kind of specialised work required for a project of this scale. To tide over some of these problems, states where the private contractors can take up this project of this scale on their own have been instructed to set aside the model of the PSU-driven projects and instead the job be handed over on a turnkey basis to these project contractors, officials said.

Other hurdles include the non-availability of PLB ducts at various sites in the states, delay in the finalization of OFC trenching and laying tenders by implementing utilities.

The project, which was initiated in 2011 and was to be funded by Universal Service Obligation Fund with the aim of providing broadband connectivity to over 2 lakh gram panchayats at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore. It aimed to leverage the existing fibre optical network of central utilities — BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid — and laying incremental fibre wherever necessary to bridge the connectivity gap between panchayats and blocks and a special purpose vehicle Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) was created as a PSU under the Companies Act of 1956 its execution.

Once implemented, the project is intended to enable the Centre to provide e-services and e-applications nationally and a minimum of 100 Mbps bandwidth is to be made available at each Gram Panchayat with non-discriminatory access to the network for all categories of service providers.

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