The story so far: On November 7, 2019, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala announced that Internet connection would be a basic right in the State, becoming the first State in the country to do so. The declaration came three years after the United Nations had passed a resolution recognising Internet access as a basic human right.
The Kerala government’s announcement was accompanied by a detailed plan to ensure that it would become a ground reality, with the setting up of the Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON), through which Internet connections would be provided free of cost to 20 lakh below-poverty-line (BPL) families. The project is aimed at ensuring universal Internet access and narrowing the digital divide, which has become especially acute after the COVID-19 outbreak. When online classes became the norm, many students were left in the lurch without connectivity or digital devices, leading to the State’s local bodies launching initiatives to provide devices and organise community screening of classes.
In addition to domestic connections, close to 30,000 government institutions, including offices, educational institutions and hospitals would also be provided with KFON connections. After initial hiccups, the first phase of the project is nearing completion, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan set to commission it on June 5, 2023, at the R. Sankaranarayanan Thampi Hall of the Legislative Assembly.
How is the government running the network and providing services?
The Kerala government’s role involves setting up the vast infrastructure required for providing Internet even to the remotest corners of the State. The network has reached remote locations, including tribal hamlets in Wayanad and elsewhere, which had remained out of the information superhighway until now. The cabling works, stretching to 34,961 km, piggybacks on the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB)‘s existing infrastructure. KFON Limited is, in fact, a joint venture of the KSEB and the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd (KSITIL).
In July 2022, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) granted KFON an infrastructure provider (IP) licence and also approved it as an internet service provider (ISP). After a tendering process, the KFON shortlisted six internet service providers, with the government providing it an amount of ₹124 per connection per month.
In the first phase, it was aimed to provide Internet connections to 14,000 BPL families, with 100 each from the State’s 140 assembly constituencies. The panchayats and the urban local bodies were given the responsibility of choosing the beneficiaries. But the process of selection has been slow, with many local bodies delaying the submission of a list of beneficiaries from their area. As of now, Internet connection has been provided to 7,000 BPL families across the State. The process of identifying the remaining beneficiaries will continue. Each household will get 1.5 GB of data per day at 15 Mbps speed.
The free Internet connections for BPL families and the connections to government institutions is just one part of the ₹1,548-crore KFON project, while the rest of the network will be monetised. The State government in 2022 constituted a committee headed by the Chief Secretary to study the possibilities of monetising the network. About 22 of a total of 48 fibres will be used for the network’s own operations. The KSEB will also be using some. The rest can be leased out, Santhosh Babu, Managing Director, KFON, had earlier told The Hindu.
Internet services will also be made available to the public at affordable rates in the second phase. Instead of the government offices paying separately for the internet services, the government will pay the bills for all the offices as quarterly payments.
In May 2023, Opposition leader V. D. Satheeshan accused the State government of serious corruption in implementing the KFON project. He alleged that ₹520 crore more than the estimate was added to the tender amount and sanctioned to a consortium including Bharat Electronics Limited and SRIT company, which is also involved in the implementation of AI camera traffic surveillance project. He said that SRIT has become a business partner of the KFON project without any capital investment. He had also questioned the undue delay in implementing the project as well as the reduction in the number of families chosen for the project. The Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) has told it would boycott the KFON inaugural ceremony on June 5.
Santosh Babu, the KFON MD, responded that SRIT was chosen as the managed service provider by floating a tender. The 50% increase from the initial estimate happened due to the inclusion of a maintenance contract for seven years which was added later. According to him, the project, earlier scheduled to be completed in December 2020, had been delayed due to the pandemic and the delay in getting right of way permits for cabling from various departments.
The road ahead
The commissioning of the first phase of KFON comes a week after the Chief Minister declared Kerala as India’s first fully e-governed state. The e-office system has already been implemented in the Secretariat, district collectorates, commissionerates and directorates. As many as 900 government services, comprising all the services usually required by the public, are now available through a single-window portal. The government has also begun a digital literacy campaign at the grassroots through various local bodies to ensure that everyone is equipped to access basic services through the Internet. If the KFON project achieves what has been envisaged, it can bring about a change at the grassroot level as far as access and opportunities are concerned.