Sometimes popular sentiment can be a realistic jump-off point for analysis. And when it comes to Internet connectivity in India, the popular (and crude) sentiment is that it sucks. This is such an old bugbear that we have to accept it as part of the Indian ethos.

Recently, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt talked about how the Internet revolution could bypass India without a high-speed optic fibre network. One could scoff at what Mr Schmidt says as something said by someone far removed from the Indian experience. But guess what? Away from the limelight, a plan is taking shape. Of course, plans have been floated around for a pan-India network several times, though the implementation of these has been a bone of contention. But even with a measure of caution, we think it's worth looking at what the Indian leadership is doing about bringing better connectivity to India.

In late 2010, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) proposed the National Broadband Plan (NBP), an ambitious project that aims to use Rs 600 billion of investment to bring high-speed connectivity to PCs in 160 million households. The plan outlines setting up of State Optic Fibre Agencies (SOFA) in each state and another National Optic Fibre Agency (NOFA).

Under the NBP, the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle, was set up by the government. The objective of BBNL is to manage and operate the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN). The NOFN will eventually provide connectivity to 250,000 Gram Panchayats. If realised, it has the potential to transform many aspects of India, including areas such as education, business, entertainment, environment, health households and e-governance services.

(Image credit: Gettty Images)

High-speed connectivity all around (Image credit: Gettty Images)

Initiated under the National Telecom Policy (NTP) 2012, BBNL hopes to deliver affordable and reliable broadband on demand by 2015. The organisation has set a target of 175 million connections by 2017. By 2020, BBNL hopes to have 600 million subscribers with a minimum 2Mbps speed, up to 100Mbps on demand. Even going by conservative estimates, that is a lofty plan indeed and we have routinely seen numbers being bandied out that do not seem realistic or are not feasible. However, we must reserve judgment till the NOFN goes beyond pilot projects – there are three at the moment.

The NTP will also eventually recognise broadband connectivity as a basic necessity like education and health, and all citizens will have Right to Broadband. Not only consumers, but the BBNL plans to use the widespread network to synergise different government programmes.

In comparison to the existing number of subscribers, the TRAI project certainly looks overly ambitious, especially considering how woefully behind the actual numbers are to the regulatory authority’s targets. In January this year, India finally crossed the landmark figure of 15 million broadband connections. There are now 15.01 million at the end of January 2013, as per TRAI. However, 15 million subscribers was a target that was hoped to be achieved before 2010. Sure, year-on-year we have seen an increase in the number of broadband users. But in a cut-and-dry sense, we are more than three years behind the estimates. What BBNL hopes to do is to add momentum to this exercise.

(Image credit: Gettty Images)

The NOFN will help increase 3G and 4G penetration (Image credit: Gettty Images)

BBNL has already started pilot projects in three phases, covering 58 Gram Panchayats in three different states. Arian in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, Parvada in Visakhapatnam of Andhra Pradesh and Panisagar in North Tripura district in Tripura have seen the fruits of optical fibre laid out in their Gram Panchayats. Electronic equipment such as OLT and ONT have been tested for offering services. BBNL has decided to offer free Bandwidth to all potential users till March 31 in the pilot areas.

The pilot projects will be used to address ground realities in rural sector. They are also the proving grounds for the NOFN Network Operation Centre. The pilot blocks will be integrated with existing networks upwards. This will also address the issue of interfacing of NOFN with service providers at Gram Panchayats. The experience gained by participation of service providers in utilising bandwidth created by NOFN with respect to deliverables committed by BBNL.

The advent of affordable and high-speed broadband will bring more players and stakeholders in to the game, forcing ISPs to step up or step down. Secondly, it will also improve the quality of mobile Internet in the country, which is heavily congested with overcrowding on 2G networks. Even the 3G penetration hasn’t reached its full potential. With talk of 4G coming to all the major regions by the end of the year, we can expect telecom service providers to hook up to the existing and potential fibre optic network to expand their areas of operation.

Straight to your home (Image credit: Getty Images)

Straight to your home (Image credit: Getty Images)

The BBNL is indubitably a promising project and one which could truly revolutionise Indian Internet. But as with many other projects that sought to modernise the Indian hinterland, there are dangers along the way. The unique nature of India’s different regions and states has made mockery of such pan-India exercises in the past. Besides, the wide scale of the project means results will not be seen for at least the next two to three years. There are also dangers of a bureaucratic nature, with red tape often scuppering promising projects in the past.

The biggest worry, though, is that an exercise undertaken for the public good might never take off beyond pilot projects because of pecuniary interests of private Internet providers. The status quo suits private entities more than one might expect. If the BBNL is a great success, the onus is on private players to effectively pass on the increased bandwidth to the consumers. The reduction in cost and speed of building broadband infrastructure and the reduction in fees and levies should translate to lower prices. More importantly, it will improve the environment for service providers involved in delivery of broadband and mobile Internet.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,