Proposed in 2011 and approved on October 25, 2011, National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) or BharatNet is a project aimed to offer broadband connections to more than 200,000 Indian panchayats. Estimated to cost close to $3 billion, the program is funded by Universal Science Obligation Fund. Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle (a secured subsidiary), was set up as a public sector undertaking (PSU) to help execute the project. United Telecoms Limited (UTL) was handed over the job to build necessary physical infrastructure for connecting the villages.         

Developments

The program’s initial cost has escalated more than threefold from $3 billion (Rs. 20,000 crores) to $11.2 billion (Rs. 72,778 crores). The target number of panchayats was also increased from 200,000 to 250,000. The program was originally slated to be completed by December 2013; the completion date was then pushed to September, 2015.

The project was re-examined and fresh targets were set, as per which 50,000 village panchayats were to receive broadband connectivity by March 2015; another 100,000 panchayats having connectivity by March 2016; the remaining panchayats receiving the service by the end of 2016.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) later revised the plan again, realizing the March 2016 deadline was not feasible since only 20,000 villages received broadband connectivity by March 2015 out of the targeted 50,000 villages. A more practical deadline – 20,000 village panchayats by December 2016 was marked. The new project completion deadline is December 2017.          

Slow Progress

Part of the Digital India initiative, the NOFN project has been heavily criticized for its snail-like progress. Seeking permissions from local civic bodies (especially in states such as Tamil Nadu), lack of coordination between agencies, etc. are the reasons for the slow pace.             

Several BSNL nodal officers who are overseeing network construction in gram panchayats also complained about the lack of proper infrastructure and necessary support from villages.

Paying heed to industry experts and analysts’ voices, the government roped in more private players to help both the central and state governments revise plans and make them more efficient and cost-effective. Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Telecom Minister, also convened a meeting seeking increased cooperation from state governments.  

State governments such as Andhra Pradesh have opted to create their own special purpose vehicle (SPV), the cost of which will be reimbursed by the central government. Other southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala are also believed to be contemplating their own SPV.