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Published on February 21, 2016

Author: kumarranjanits


1. DIGITALLY CONNECTING RURAL INDIA BY 2018 Our Prime Minister has launched Digital India mission in 2015 which aim to provide Digital Connectivity, E-Governance Services and Digital Empowerment to each and every rural citizen up to remotest corner of India. In 2011, Government of India approved ambitious National Optic Fiber Network (NOFN) project for connecting rural India & far flung corners of India  To enable delivery of telecom services, broadband services by various TSP/ISP to rural population.  To enable delivery of E-Governance services by Central & State Government Institutions at GP and various E-Services (E-Education, E-Skill, E-Health, E- Commerce) by Public & Private entities.  To act as catalyst for seeding of local rural commerce activities. ABOUT NOFN PROJECT This project is to deploy Rural Optic Fiber based data transport network (Middle Mile connectivity network) between 6600 Blocks and 2.5Lakh Gram Panchayats. This fiber network will be in use for next 20-25 years. Under NOFN project, it is expected that once underground fiber transport network is laid between Block & GP, TSP/ISP/LCO/MSO will setup Broadband Wireless/Wireline access network at Gram Panchayat by connecting their access network to NOFN Network POI at GP and by connecting their core network to NOFN POI at Block.

2. EXTENT OF RURAL INDIA Geographically India has 72.2% of total area (i.e. 72.2% of 32.88Lakh Sq km) as rural India which includes approx. 6.4 Lakh villages under 2.5Lakh Gram Panchayats, 6600 Blocks and 641 districts. Terrain of India are very diverse, Mountains to Plateaus to Deserts to Plains to Islands.  5 Lakh Sq Km of Northern Himalayan Mountains  19 Lakh Sq Km of Deccan Plateau  7 Lakh Sq Km of Gangetic plain  2 Lakh Sq Km of Desert  100 Sq Km of Islands CURRENT STATUS OF PROJECT  NOFN project was to be completed in 3 years i.e. by year 2015 wherein approx. 5Lakh Kms of 24Core underground fiber cable is to be laid between Blocks and GPs while utilizing 4Lakh Kms of Single Core BSNL fiber (known as incremental fiber approach). In case government decides to lay all new fiber, a total of 10Lakh Km of 24Core underground fiber cable will have to be laid (known as End to End Fiber approach).  NOFN project has run into severe delay due to several technical & execution issues. After 3 yrs of launch of project, only 85000Km of underground fiber cable could have been laid by three nominated central public sector agencies – BSNL, RailTel, Powergrid while whole project was to be completed by 2015.  Presently average Fiber laying rate is approx. 250Km per day which are primarily in Plain and Plateau terrains. At this speed NOFN project with incremental fiber approach is estimated to take 5 years. Key reasons for slow progress of fiber laying are o Right of way Clearance issues with Central & State agencies o Limited Resource Mobilization by CPSUs (Machinery and Labors) o Lack of use of advanced machinery which does with trenching, laying & filling o Poor Program Management  Delay in supply of technology equipments/electronics has also hampered lightening of GP where Fiber laying has completed STATUS OF FIBER NETWORK IN INDIA India has approx. 15Lakh Km of Optic Fiber laid in last 10 years. Out of which approx. 13Lakh Km of Fiber is for National Long distance transport network.  BSNL Approx. 6 Lakh Km (10% is intra city)  Reliance Communication Approx. 2 Lakh Km

3.  Reliance Jio Approx. 2 Lakh Km (40% is intra city)  Airtel Approx. 1.8Lakh Km (30% is intra city)  Idea Approx. 0.75Lakh Km  Vodafone Approx. 1.5Lakh Km  RailTel Approx. 0.7Lakh Km  Powergrid Approx. 0.3Lakh Km EXPERIENCES OF OTHER COUNTRIES Below picture depicts similar initiatives of few countries for national fiber project. But none of project is of scale equivalent to NOFN for underground fiber laying. Argentina has deployed 58000Km of federal long distance fiber network in 5 years with estimated cost of $1.8 billion. Malaysia has deployed 47000Km of transport fiber network in phase1 to connect 1.3 million Urban premises through FTTH in 6 years for providing high speed broadband services at estimated cost of $3.5 billion. After successfully completion of phase1 project, Government has approved phase2 with additional $3.4 billion for connecting additional 2.8 million households in urban area and 2 million consumers in suburban area. National Broadband Network (NBN) Project of Australia is for laying 2Lakh km optic fiber to provide broadband connectivity to every citizen of Australia (Australia’s geographical area is twice of India’s). This project also ran into severe delay and

4. severe cost escalation. This took 9 years to complete at escalated cost of more than $35billion. China has nationwide approx. 21million Km of Optic Fiber network.  Most of Optic Fiber have been laid to build access networks and FTTH/B Network. Presently China has approx. 95million FTTH/B subscribers.  1million Km of Optical Fiber route has been laid for National Long Distance for Rural connectivity.  1million Km has been laid for National Expressway Optical Fiber Network.  China has achieved very high overall route Km of fiber deployment but 90% of these fiber network are built for access network like FTTH/B network. Effort, time and resources required for FTTH/B network can’t be compared with long distance underground Fiber laying. World over such projects have taken 5 to 10 years with route kms much lesser than NOFN project. China Expressway Fiber Network Laying Rate CAN WE RAMP UP NOFN FIBER LAYING RATE Underground Fiber laying is done in adherence to procedure and standards suitable to different terrain conditions. Apart from ROW issues, different terrain conditions pose different set of challenges. For ex. In hilly area, fiber laying along roadside is always slow due to traffic conditions. In plain area, fiber laying gets restricted to certain months when plain is not flooded. These factors adds as impediment in achieving higher rate of Fiber laying. Following measures if taken, can accelerate Fiber Laying rate

5.  Trencher engaged by CPSU can optimistically trench 1Km per day. All put together there is need to mobilize at least 700 trenchers along with other dedicated Machineries and labour pool to achieve average laying speed of 500Km per day. With this speed, it would optimistically take 4 years (by year 2020) to complete project in incremental fiber approach.  With adoption of advanced high speed Trenchers (doing digging, laying and filling together) suitable for different terrain conditions and engagement of double number of Project Implementation agencies (PIA) having strong program management practices, we can further ramp up laying rate to 1000Km per day. With this speed, it will take 2 years to complete project in incremental fiber approach.  If End to End Fiber deployment is done with use of advanced machinery and double number of PIA, this project would take 4 years (by year 2020). WHAT SHOULD BE OUR IMMEDIATE PRIORITY Success of our Prime Minister’s Digital Mission is critically dependent on successfully connecting 2.5Lakh Gram Panchayat and 6.4Lakh Villages over reliable internet access network at the earliest. Keeping rural India on wait for basic internet connectivity, E-Governance Service and various other E-services, just for our desire of rolling out very high Capex intensive and longer project timeline fiber network, may not be good strategy. It is to be understood that even if Fiber network is made available, it will not immediately lead to effective utilization of network. On priority, Country need transport/connectivity network which can  Deliver low cost affordable Internet Services to rural population for at least 4- 6Hrs every day.  People in rural India has to first feel, learn benefits of Internet and start consuming Internet driven E-services. Government need to get all of its department ready to deliver various E-Governance services and get eco-system ready & contents developed for various E-Services.  Private entities will have to bring in low cost Smartphone device at cost of Rs2000 or lesser. Government needs to realistically assess the timeline which National Fiber network deployment is going to take to connect 2.5 Lakh Gram Panchayats. In case it is more than 5 years then it would be right strategy to evaluate alternate interim strategy to connect GPs

6. ALTERNATE STRATEGY (INTERIM SOLUTION) TO CONNECT RURAL INDIA BY MAR’ 2018 Internet Bandwidth can be extended from Block to various GPs and further Village locations by deploying wireless backhaul solution. In Wireless backhaul category, we have options of Licensed band Microwave based P2P backhaul, unlicensed band 802.11n based P2P or P2MP backhaul, unlicensed band Ethernet bridging based P2P or P2MP backhaul, unlicensed band Whitespace based P2P or P2MP backhaul and others solution. For rural connectivity, there is need to adopt technology which has low cost of acquisition, low cost of operation, low power requirement, capability to deliver 50Mbps & more up to distance of 10Km & more and also easily availability in market (non-proprietary). With respect to above mentioned parameters, unlicensed band Wireless backhaul solution comes out more commercial viable and suitable for large scale rural connectivity requirement. 1. 802.11n or Ethernet bridging standard based P2P and P2MP backhaul technology on 5GHz unlicensed band are very prevalent and low cost solution.  P2P radio link can deliver more than 50Mbps at distance of 10Km or more with 40MHz channel. Some of vendor solution can connect other point up to 50Km.  Typical P2MP radio link can deliver up to 50Mbps at distance of 3-4Km with 40MHz channel.  GP would need installation of 10-15m Pole to put GP backhaul device.  Towers of existing operators at Blocks can be used to put block backhaul device. 2. Whitespace based technology is still in pre-maturity stage and therefore this solution can be evaluated as pilot and may be adopted in limited area for purpose assessing technology robustness, reliability, scalability, security, OEM support & commercial etc.

7. Once Government’s National Fiber Network is deployed between Block and GPs under National Fiber Project, Backhaul Devices from Block can be removed and re- deployed at GP to connect villages. RECOMMENDATION  Government needs to implement immediate measures to accelerate NOFN Fiber laying rate from 250Km per day to more than 500Km per day with End to End Fiber laying approach. (total 9Lakh Km fiber to be laid)  Government may consider adoption of deployment of Interim low cost Wireless backhaul connectivity solution to connect priority Blocks & Gram Panchayats which will enable internet connectivity in 1/2years timeline and can meet next 3- 5 years internet bandwidth requirement. Such network will enable seeding of rural commerce activities.  As part of interim solution, approx. 50,000 GPs which are in tough terrain areas, should be connected over Satellite.  Government should roll-out Low cost & Solar Powered Wireless Wi-Fi Outdoor Access points so as provide internet connectivity at several targeted locations of 2.5lakh Gram panchayats and of villages where people either live or come together for some purpose. Government should deploy on the average 3 to 5 Wi-Fi Outdoor Access Points at each of 2.5Lakh Gram Panchayats. Author: Kumar Ranjan Disclaimer: * Author has expressed his Opinion & comments. Some of data has been referred from public domain. Some of figures may not reflect actual data.

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