STL, a connectivity solutions company has been working with the government of India on multiple projects which includes things such as Navy/Army network modernisation, BharatNet, and smart cities in Rajasthan and more. KS Rao, CEO, Network Services and Software, STL shared a lot of things related to the company’s plans in India and the BharatNet project. Here’s everything you should know.
Q1. What Is Your Take on the Announcement by the Finance Minister?
FM announcement of Rs 19,000 crore as an additional outlay for the BharatNet project is definitely a positive step and will help extend broadband connectivity to rural areas in a fast manner. The year 2020 has proved the importance of bridging the rural divide. The govt spending on digital infrastructure will be the key to economic growth and reducing income inequality. Developed economies are spending around 1.5% of their GDP on building digital infra, while we spend around 0.5%. India should spend to the tune of ~1.2% of its GDP on digital infra.
The 19K crore investment will help to extend BharatNet Broadband connectivity to all remaining Gram Panchayats. The project will ensure the design, construction of the new network and upgradation of the existing network, with this govt. It will also ensure operation and maintenance (O&M) of the existing network and the new network, and all other related activities in PPP mode with viability gap funding (VGF).
To date, the government has been able to connect about 1.56 lakh of the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats with fibre broadband. Additionally, the government’s announcement to reduced bulk BharatNet bandwidth rates for commercial telecom operators by 76% will help telecom operators to offer affordable BharatNet-enabled wireless cellular 4G broadband deals to rural customers. We believe, the introduction of viability gap funding will bring more transparency and will ensure a speedy rollout.
Once all gram panchayats and villages are connected to the dedicated fibre optical network, commercial telecom operators will be able to provide last-mile connectivity to all villages, which will be helpful to remove the digital divide and tap the potential of the rural economy.
We welcome the government’s announcement on new funding mechanisms and operating models (like PPP), however, implementation of uniform RoW rules, addressing challenges associated with Ease of Doing Business and enabling affordable use cases for the rural are critical for the success of BharatNet.
Q2. BharatNet Has Missed a Few Deadlines. Along With Funding, What Are the Other Initiatives That the Government Can Do to Speed Up the Deployment?
A key takeaway from the experience of Bharatnet has been that it requires a more robust project management approach to design, build and operate. Though BharatNet is one of the largest projects in the country, it was implemented by multiple government entities, which resulted in delayed implementation and serious quality issues.
A better approach would be to have an independent, professional entity with expertise, owned by the government, that uses funds from the dedicated pool of Broadband Infrastructure Fund, builds state-of-the-art digital networks and works on the business model of leasing out fibre and infrastructure to the internet service providers. This wholesale model has already been pioneered in the UK by BT Openreach and has been successfully implemented in several European countries like Spain, Portugal, France and Switzerland.
Additionally, in order to ensure the security of telecom networks and the quality of digital infrastructure in general, it is important to devise and enforce the highest standards and specifications. Currently, India has not enforced the best international standards in telecom equipment, and this has resulted in the deployment of low quality and low-cost fibre from neighbouring countries either directly or through other nations. In view of this, it is important that Indian standards that are essential for securing our digital infrastructure be formulated and made mandatory.
Q3. How STL is Contributing to BharatNet Project?
STL has been working with the government on many projects - Army/Navy network modernisation, smart cities in Jaipur, Gandhinagar and Kakinada and also in BharatNet.
- Under Mahanet, STL created robust internet connectivity for 8 districts, 60 Talukas, and 3880 Gram Panchayats (GPs), spread across 18,550 kms in Maharashtra. STL initiated technology-led fibre deployment with reduced human intervention and enhanced safety measures to ensure seamless project delivery.
- Under the T-Fiber project, STL is designing and building an end-to-end rural broadband network across 17 districts, 6063-gram panchayats of Telangana. This will enable affordable and high-speed broadband connectivity for 6 million rural citizens in the state
- With the BharatNet PPP announcement, we are foreseeing an opportunity in the same as well.
Q4. What Difference Is STL Creating in Rural Empowerment Through Digital?
We believe in unlocking value for rural communities through digital networks. We don't stop at rural connectivity, we think of rural use cases that impact the lives of rural citizens. That's the winning combination. STL believes that digital programs must be able to increase opportunities and income avenues, improve the standard of living, and eventually bring villages at par with cities. STL has been closely working with the government to get high-speed broadband and meaningful rural use cases, thus bridging the digital divide.
Keeping this in mind, STL has launched Garv, a digital platform for rural India, which will enhance the usability and impact of these broadband highways. Garv is taking meaningful services like telemedicine, e-tutoring, assisted e-commerce and e-governance to rural citizens and is creating a change for the better.
Q5. Plans of STL to Boost Rural Broadband & 5G Rollout in UK, Europe & US Market?
STL is focusing on expanding its optical fibre manufacturing capabilities from 33 to 43 million fkm. We are also opening new facilities in the US and the UK wherein we plan to open manufacturing plants in phases over the next 3 years. These facilities will be leveraged to support extensive fibre build-outs across the US, Europe and the UK to boost rural broadband and 5G rollouts. STL has recently announced the acquisition of the UK-based Clearcomm Group, to enhance the presence of its Network Integration solutions across the UK and Europe.
We will also continue to invest in R&D on optical and wireless solutions including 5G.
Q6. Now, BharatNet’s Expansion Project Is Open to Private Players. What Is Your Thought on the Same?
The Union Cabinet had approved a revised implementation strategy for the BharatNet project by opting for PPP mode in 16 states to cover around 3,60,000 villages at a total cost of Rs 29,430 crore. Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) has invited global tender for the development, including creation, upgradation, operation and maintenance, and utilisation, of BharatNet through the PPP model.
PPP has the potential to mitigate implementation challenges:
- A key takeaway from the experience of BharatNet has been that we lack the basic elements of a robust project management structure to design, build and operate it.
- One of the largest projects in the country was implemented and monitored by a single division in the Department of Telecom.
- To that extent, PPP will be very beneficial in speeding up implementation.
- Additionally, the Indian private sector has a strong capability to develop high-end network infrastructure.
- There is enough precedence that PPP models can create value in projects of strategic importance. India has witnessed tangible results in PPP for ports, Mumbai and Delhi metros and a score of health-related partnerships in the southern states. But there are cases where PPP has shown limitations.
An alternate approach that can also be explored
- An alternate approach would be to have an independent entity with expertise, owned by the government, that uses funds from the Broadband Infrastructure Fund, builds state of the art digital networks and works on the business model of leasing out fibre and infrastructure to the internet service providers.
- This model, pioneered in the UK by BT Openreach, has been successfully used in a number of European countries like Spain, Portugal, France and Switzerland.
Q7. Recently, DCC Cleared the Provision of Using Satellite Connectivity in Telecom Networks. Do You Have Any Plans to Get Into Satellite Networking? What Is Your Take on Satellite Connectivity? Will It Replace Fibre Broadband?
DCC allows VSAT operators to provide satellite-based cellular backhaul connectivity to telcos. It aims to ensure uninterrupted mobile broadband coverage in remote and far-flung regions. With this ruling, satellite connectivity can also be used to establish WiFi hotspots, moves aimed at boosting the delivery of internet and voice services in remote and inaccessible zones.
At present, we do not have any plans to venture into satellite broadband. We are completely focused on designing and deploying converged networks (wired + wireless) for the 5G era. We are also developing a portfolio of Open RAN solutions.
Satellite connectivity in telecom networks will help telecom companies in providing service in far-flung areas where it is difficult to lay optical fibre. It will not replace fibre broadband. Optic fibre communication and satellite communication are the leading technologies that are revolutionising the world of telecommunications. Both technologies have their advantages and limitations, but when we combine them together they can do wonders.