Housed in the local village council building, the DEF’s office stands as working proof of the Smartpur mission. In one of the rooms occupied by DEF, it runs digital literacy courses and plans to start telemedicine services. All of it powered by WiFi from Airtel.
In the same building, the CSC (Common Service Centre), a citizen-centric government initiative that helps people apply for PAN cards and seek government services, also uses DEF’s WiFi. But the CSC shouldn’t need to do this. Stashed in the CSC room is a trove of equipment. A modem, router, GPON equipment to ensure the single optic fibre feed can serve multiple users. The works. Red and green lights on the equipment blink repeatedly. But the internet the equipment is supposed to enable is but a dream. The WiFi doesn’t work anywhere in the building, let alone the CSC. It doesn’t even show up on the list of available WiFi networks. Locals say this has been the case for days.
If this were just any other internet connection, no one would bat an eyelid. But it isn’t. The connection is part of BharatNet, the government’s flagship digital connectivity programme. Envisioned as the world’s largest digital infrastructure project, BharatNet aimed to provide broadband connectivity to a whopping 250,000 gram panchayats (village councils) across the country.
According to a Department of Telecom (DoT) reply to the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, Rs 10,286 crore ($1.4 billion) has already been spent on the project. 92% of the funds allocated for phase 1 of the project. A BSNL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, puts the net spend at closer to Rs 12,000 crore ($1.6 billion).
Things went wrong!
However, seven years after the program was conceived, things haven’t quite panned out as intended. Instead, BharatNet has become an example of how government processes and bureaucratic structures can destroy a well-intentioned project. Despite the small fortune spent on the programme, the scheme has been criticised by both government and private organisations alike. Reports from DEF and ICT policy and regulation think-tank LIRNEasia concur that the internet has mostly been non-functional in BharatNet-connected areas.
This reality is playing out in various villages visited by The Ken. In two other villages near Tain—Salaheri and Kherla—the story was the same. No connectivity. In another village— Firozpur Namak—the VLE (village-level entrepreneur) who runs the CSC was using his Vodafone hotspot to work on citizen queries. He says that initially 1.5 GB was given free, but people used it up in one day. Since then, no one has come forward to recharge it. “When they are getting more data on Jio and Vodafone, why would they recharge it. And then also, the network does not work half the time. So what is the point,” he laments.
In an ideal scenario, providers like Bharti Airtel, Jio or Vodafone wouldn’t have rendered BharatNet obsolete. Instead, they should have used BharatNet’s broadband infrastructure to offer WiFi to users. This was the intention of the project. The government would build an optical fibre network, and telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs) would buy bandwidth from state-owned telecom provider BSNL to offer internet services to customers. This hasn’t happened. Even with the imminent advent of 5G—a network that’s hugely dependent on optical fibre—BharatNet’s offering seems to have few takers.
With usage scarce thanks to patchy service, and intended customers both shirking the project and becoming direct threats, BharatNet is a beleaguered entity. So, what does the future hold for the world’s largest digital infrastructure project? Does it even have a future? To get to that, let’s first figure out how BharatNet stumbled into this predicament in the first place.
Rural internet—the holy grail
The need for a service like BharatNet is obvious, its import borne out by the actions of global internet giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google. Google’s initiative is called “Next Billion Users”. It aims to get first-time users onto the internet, either through local language support, high-quality internet access or by improving the smartphone experience. Facebook, which failed with its earlier FreeBasics offering, is attempting to do something similar with Express WiFi, where it will provide public WiFi hotspots for internet access. E-commerce major Amazon, meanwhile, is testing a Hindi interface for its mobile site. It would be fair to assume that a large number of users they are targeting are rural inhabitants. There is a large, untapped market, and these companies want in.