Union Budget: Rural thrust for inclusive growth - Vision fulfillment with Broadband Access
It is encouraging to see that the Union Budget 2016-17 has its greatest emphasis on rural economy. The special thrust on Rural India, reinforces the Government’s commitment to focus on equitable growth areas in urban and rural sectors. Finance minister has rolled out several sops for Agriculture and farmers welfare and rural sector with a focus on doubling farmer’s income in next five years.
Many of the programs which budget support such as integrated e-platform for marketing of rural products, on line platform to facilitate purchase by food corporations of India are welcome steps.
Adoption of advances in technology, connectivity of the farms with market, rural India with main stream is going to be the key to make these reforms show result.
Broadband highways are critical for providing connectivity across India so as to deliver social and economic services. Under Digital India vision, GOI has also emphasized the importance and necessity of providing broadband connectivity up to Gram Panchayats, which are the key institutions for local self-governance in the rural area. Broadband access has a great potential for empowering rural masses for giving them access to information, public services including education, health and financial inclusion.
A recent study by ICRIER shows that a 10% increase in growth of Internet subscribers leads to an increase of as much as 1.08 % in the rate of growth of GDP.
BharatNet (erstwhile NOFN) is the backbone of Digital India project, which aims for connecting all 250000 Gram Panchayats (GP) with Broadband through National Optical Fibre network, so that Government institutes i.e. Schools, Hospital, Post offices, security agencies can be provided with sufficiently high internet bandwidth for running application for better Governance and for access of information for general public. The project was originally targeted to be completed in two years and the nationwide rollout was expected as early as 2014. Due to implementation challenges the project could not meet the timelines.
As we understand till now, optical fibre cable has connected about 41000 GPs out of which about 4000 GPs have actually been lit. Laying of national OFC ring from DHQ to BHQ and BHQ to total 250,000 GPs involves huge complexity because of wide geographical spread, multi-agency coordination, ROW permission etc.
While the Government is re-examining the technical architecture, capacity, design, technologies and implementation strategies, it is to be appreciated that whatever elaborate blue print in this regard is being reworked out by the government, roll out of network primarily based on Optical Fibre network across country will have its timeline challenges.
For speedy readiness of nationwide network for running the Digital Services, an alternate approach could be adopted , instead of going for an incremental OFC connectivity of about 5-10 kms from Block to GPs for small households which is not making business sense or demographic challenges which are limiting the faster Fibre roll out, using other media options i.e., Radios in license free band for such connectivity may be a more practical and cost effective approach. In longer run while Optical fibre is being laid, on its commissioning, radio links can act as redundant standby media. This will help meet the overall objective of high availability of the network.
While BharatNet will catalyses the process of bridging the digital divide, the extension of broadband connectivity from Gram Panchayats to the last mile will remain most significant in order to enable the delivery of Government services reaching to the end user so that ultimate National objective is accomplished. This will remain the key challenge and can be accomplished only with mix of technological options and innovative business models.
High capacity point to point fixed radios operating in license free bands can extend connectivity to long distances and can carry large broadband bandwidth required for further distribution. They can serve as the cost effective and rapid back haul alternate for delivering high bandwidth at GP nodes of the NOFN and further distribution of 10 Mbps or more to each of the institutional nodes constituting, hospitals, schools and other rural masses in villages . Using Wi-Fi as a complimenting broadband access technology makes huge sense to extend broadband from GPs to the masses, as the popularity of Wi-Fi-enabled devices is increasing at rapid pace and its cost effectiveness is increasing rapidly with economy of scales.
For fast roll out Radio links shall be deployed widely for backhauling between BHQ and GPs and further extension to institutions and villages. They can be deployed rapidly and start extending the services. Once the Optical Fiber network reaches , link can act as a redundant media.
Rapid Broadband access to rural areas will help augment productivity of the agricultural sector and will facilitate more efficient participation of the rural masses in governance, generate employment opportunities, enable host of e-services there by benefits of various sops offered in Budget start showing its positive results.