A ‘comprehensive look’ at NOFN strategy and implementation

PMO directly steps in to speed up the laying of fibre optic cable network across the country

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Pratap Vikram Singh | February 9, 2015


#NOFN project   #egovernance   #narendra modi  

The prime minister’s office (PMO) has setup a high-level committee to take a ‘comprehensive look’ at the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project and propose an implementation strategy. NOFN aims to provide optical fibre connectivity to 2,50,000 gram panchayats and is considered to be the backbone of prime minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Digital India programme.

Aruna Sundararajan, administrator, universal service obligation fund (USOF), and chairman of Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) told Governance Now: “The committee will take a look at NOFN’s architecture and design, implementation strategy, mission framework and technology options for the last mile.” The committee will submit its report by the end of February, she declared at the India Digital Summit organised in Delhi by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). 

Talking about the delay in the rollout, Sundararajan said the field survey related to locating fibre and drawing the map for laying out fibre from block to panchayat took one and half years, while development of electronics for NOFN took another year. “Since the electricity supply is inadequate in rural areas, the electronics had to be robust enough to work in that environment,” she added. She admitted that there were gaps in fibre connectivity between blocks and districts.

Initially, according to department of telecommunications (DoT) officials, it was assumed that the upstream fibre connectivity (between blocks and districts) was in place as the cables were laid out some years back.

“However, the electronics hardware being used in this network had become obsolete and needed to be replaced,” an official said.
To fix this, the government has drawn another project called government user network (GUN), which would ensure connectivity between districts and blocks. The GUN will also provide connectivity to all government offices, including schools. The DoT, however, is yet to get approval from the government on GUN. “Under GUN, bandwidth will be hired and new electronics will be put in place. This project will require '5,000 crores. Due to geographical constraints it has not been possible to lay out optical fibre cables in some parts of the country,” said the official.

Exploring alternatives

In such places other solutions, including wireless and radio, are being explored. “We can’t wait for the cable to be laid out. We have to provide connectivity in some form to the people in the meanwhile,” Sundararajan said. It is important to note here that it is for the first time government is mooting alternative solutions for providing internet connectivity, besides optical fibre cables. 

The PMO has also decided to bring in the private sector for laying down the fibre. For last-mile connectivity, an expression of interest will be drafted for every state. The service providers will have to do at least one pilot project per state. She said by end of this year the government will have a robust last mile model for the whole country. The government will also look at viability issues while delivering the last mile connectivity. “The government might also provide for publicly funded Wi-Fi hot spots across all village panchayats,” she added.

Sundararajan also clarified that the first set of 50,000 gram panchayats will be provided with high-speed internet connectivity only later this year, and not by March. The PMO had initially set a phase-wise rollout target for NOFN. As per the plan, first half lakh panchayats were to be connected by March, another one lakh by the end of this year and remaining one lakh by the end of 2016. NOFN was approved in 2011 and was supposed to be implemented in three years. By March-April, Sundararajan said, most of districts of Kerala and 30 districts of Karnataka will be connected to NOFN. On January 12, communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declared that Idukki in Kerala will be the first district to be entirely connected to NOFN.

Roadblocks on the way


A joint report released by IAMAI and Boston Consulting Group titled India@Digital.Bharat stated, “According to a recent DoT survey the ongoing speed of laying the cable is 500 km per month, whereas the required speed to achieve the target is 30,000 km a month. Given the delays, the target looks difficult to complete within the proposed timeframe.” A senior official with DoT said the annual operational cost of running NOFN under implementation is around '3,000 crore. The estimate has been mentioned in a cabinet note circulated by department of telecommunications. While there is not much clarity on where the fund would come from, the ministry of rural development, which will also be a prime user of the network, is likely to contribute to the fund. “The government will have to incur this cost. DoT is working on business cases. We don’t see revenue coming out of it in the years to come,” said the DoT official. “Initially, the aggregate revenue might be around '500 crore from the network.”

Pradeep Agarwal, director of planning, BBNL, said that the agency has surveyed 90 percent of blocks and GPs. “As per survey, on an average 2.4 km cable is to be laid, and around 3 km  of existing fibre need to be used,” he said. More than 2,00,000 village panchayats have been surveyed. Through the survey BBNL has figured out the fibre route, laying, serving centres and equipment. The NOFN is based on GPON (gigabit passive optical network) technology. “Under GPON a fibre tree is drawn. This is done through putting splitters. The splitter takes one fibre input and breaks it into multiple fibres,” Agarwal said. Specialised equipment called the Optical Network Terminal is deployed at the panchayat level. Optical Line Terminal, another type of equipment, is deployed at the block end connecting the fibre.  “When this entire tree is lit then all these end points gets lit,” he said adding, “Around 4,000 maps planned for each of these places have been posted on BBNL portal.” There are different components of the project. Digging and putting duct is already in place. BBNL is to procure optical fibre cable and accessories like joints boxes, splitters and other equipment.

“Tenders have already been finalised and material has already been rolling in,” Agarwal said. “Trenching and laying pipeline in close to 1,000 blocks has already commenced. The specifications are quite stringent. Fibre cables have to put at 1.6 metres depth. After that there has to be a depth acceptance testing. Then, there has to be a cable acceptance testing. Such testing is required so that the fibre once laid shouldn’t get damaged.” Work has advanced in 1,000 blocks and close to 20,000 plus panchayats would be ready to be lit up. “We are putting our best efforts to do as much work before arrival of monsoon,” Agarwal added.


Decoding NOFN

National Optical Fibre Network aims to deliver high-speed internet to 2.5 lakh village panchayats. It is considered the backbone of Digital India programme. It was formulated by UPA government and was approved in 2011.

New deadline: 2016

Project cost


Initially the cost was estimated to be around '27,000 crore. But proposed government user network (GUN) will add an extra expense of '5,000 crore. The new government has formed a committee to propose a final rollout strategy. The committee will submit its report by February-end.

Length of fibre: 6,00,000 km

Reason for delay

Poor planning is a major reason for delay. The programme initially provided for laying fiber between block and panchayat and putting necessary electronics hardware in place. It didn’t take into account need for replacing old equipments deployed between district and block.

Private sector participation

Initially the government didn’t take help of the private sector. The plan was that BSNL, Power Grid and RailTel will do the job. The Modi government  has approved private sector participation for laying down the cable. The private sector will also play a larger role in taking the high-speed bandwidth to rural consumers.

pratap@governancenow.com

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