3 pilot projects with 61 gram panchayats across Ajmer, Vizag and North Tripura by October

The government’s largest-ever Rs. 20,000 crore ($4 billion) investment in building a National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN), popularly known as the Bharat Broadband Project, is set for commercial testing and deployment this month.

The project, based on a unique PPP or Public Private Panchayat Model, is laying “incremental fibre” to the “pre-last mile” stage aimed at reaching 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. The government is expected to make the project public in the next few weeks, with 61 gram panchayats spread across Ajmer (30), Visakhapatnam (16) and North Tripura (15) likely to be available for commercial tests with complete electronic equipment in place.

These pilot projects will be the first real test of fostering e-services in these panchayats.

Highlighting the significance of the project, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal said, “India is getting ready to fully embrace the Internet revolution. The NOFN super optic highway will connect 2.5 lakh villages and last mile connectivity will be given through mobile-wireless broadband.”

The deployment of e-services is a challenge by itself. The content, services and applications are expected to come from both the private sector and the government. The phasing of these e-services, capacity building in such rural areas and most importantly, need to create an entire range of interlocutors or “para-technicians”, who will work as a conduit between the average rural citizen and Internet access, is the next phase of the challenge.

A majority of the funding for this network is being sourced from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), to which consumers contribute a small percentage every month through their monthly telephone bills.

According to Administrator USOF and CEO, Bharat Broadband Project, Ravi Shanker, “The role of the telecom and ISP sector is key to service delivery. There are major opportunities for the future which remain currently untapped.”

Barriers

The barriers to reaping the full benefits of this massive investment are at three levels. The first is affordable devices, preferably wireless and ready for early use. The second challenge relates to relevant, local content. The third is by way of successful introduction of telemedicine, e-governance, e-learning and e-commerce applications that form the fulcrum of the nation’s e-infrastructure.

Mr. Shankar identified data tariffs along with ICT (Information and Communication Technology) literacy as two areas that will continually require government intervention. According to him, the movement of content from anglocentric, text-based availability to multi-lingual access would assist immensely in deepening Internet usage.

Citing the success of voice telephony, he said the shift from text-based web to voice-based web, also had the potential to become the single biggest factor in enhancing Internet access in the country.

Mobile operators and ISPs have been working closely with Bharat Broadband teams to seek commercial opportunities. It is clear that early days will have teething problems, but for the most part, transport infrastructure should be in place by the end of 2013.

The immediate next challenge for entrepreneurs would be to build a sustainable business model that can deliver continued technological support and financial returns — preferably through killer applications that suit the Indian rural palette.

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