Even before the country is ready for 5G services, the high-speed fiber in every corner of the country, the talks of PM-WANI are rife in the crowds roaming the streets of the pandemic-stricken country. However, as the news of the PM-WANI scheme fills the columns of many newspapers and websites, there is another project of the government which has been in the headlines for some of the wrong reasons, and that project is BharatNet. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) launched the BharatNet project with an ambitious target of connecting 2.5 lakh panchayats all over the country, connecting 6 lakh villages, but this project has been targeted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for its modest lack of quality.
CAG Slams CSC On Poor Implementation of BharatNet
The highest financial office in the country, which audits the expenses of the government, CAG, has dealt a blow to DoT and CSC both with regards to the poor service, the slow rollout, and multiple issues which have plagued the BharatNet project. To recall, the BharatNet project was slated to be completed by 2019, but by then, only a handful of panchayats had been connected.
Not only this but the stakeholder responsible for the rollout of BharatNet in the villages and ensuring last-mile connectivity was the CSC, which was also issued Rs 386.42 crore and 116.50 crores between 2019 and 2020, in addition to the funding ensured originally to the project. Despite this, problems went awry between VLE (Village Level Entrepreneurs) and BBNL, who is responsible for providing equipment to the VLEs and Digital Seva Kendras. These VLEs have been given the job of extending the internet to the last mile in the villages. It is worth noting that the structure of the stakeholders in this project is quite complex as BharatNet also draws funds from the USOF or the Univeral Service Obligation Fund. In its report, as per ET Telecom, CAG also remarked that USOF is only relying on the data provided by the CSC and has no capability to slap fine on CSC.
Present Deadline Also Not Quite Optimistic
Not only this, but the CSCs have been found to be unable to supply 10 Mbps of speed to the village panchayats. With the present scenario, the dream of the government to have a robust public-private partnership on top of a high-speed broadband network running through most villages of the country seems to be in grave danger. Even with the latest developments, the August 2021 deadline for the BharatNet project seems to be far fetched.
However, the dangers are not just limited to the lack of connectivity in village panchayats, but the fear of administrative inefficiencies, lacklustre implementation of SPVs, mainly BBNL in this regard, and other discrepancies may creep into another project of PM-WANI. Hence, there is the danger that what has happened in the 6 lakh villages might be repeated in the urban streets as a failed public Wi-Fi hotspot scheme with abysmal infrastructure and poor speeds might deny the interest of private investments in these projects and might also create a whirlpool of data users who rely on freebies too often. Not only this, but the current discrepancies might translate into lapses of security and privacy in the networks that are meant to be deployed in cities under PM-WANI and in villages under BharatNet.