It all started in the year around 2014 when the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) has been started by the Government of India with an aim to connect the Two Lakh Fifty Thousand Gram Panchayat’s with Fibre connectivity. At that time, OFC (Optical Fibre Cable) connectivity is available in all State Capitals, Districts Head Quarters and up to the Block Level. There is a plan to connect all the 2, 50, 000 Gram panchayats in the country. This will be done by utilizing existing fibres of PSUs (BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid) and laying incremental fibre to connect to Gram Panchayats wherever necessary. Dark fibre network thus created will be lit by appropriate technology thus creating sufficient bandwidth at the Gram Panchayats. This will be called the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN). Thus connectivity gap between Gram Panchayats and Blocks will be filled. It was also decided that there will be wireless medium to further the connectivity from the already connected 2 Lakh 50 Thousand Gram Panchayat to the 6 Lakh 40 Thousand villages of India. Non-discriminatory access to the NOFN will be provided to all the Service Providers. These service providers like Telecom Service Providers (TSPs), ISPs, Cable TV operators and Content providers can launch various services in rural areas. Various categories of applications like e-health, e-education and e-governance etc. can be provided by these operators. It was proposed to be completed in 2 years’ time. The project will be funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). To bridge the rural-urban divide, an executing agency in the name of Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL) is formed which will look after the project.
There were two phases of the BharatNet project.
- The first phase envisages providing One Lakh Gram Panchayats with broadband connectivity by laying underground optic fibre cable (OFC) lines by December 2017.
- The second phase will provide connectivity to all 2,50,500 gram panchayats in the country using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines, radio and satellite media.
There were also many challenges to do as deploying the underground fibre is task consuming task, terrain is very difficult, Right of Way (RoW) permissions etc. Also, earlier the BharatNet project aim is to just connect the GP’s with fibre connectivity and the utilization of BharatNet was yet to be decided. Hence it has become very difficult to actually provide the benefits of the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure available at the Gram Panchayat’s to empower the communities with such affordable digital services like e-health, e-education, e-banking, e-governance, etc. Hence there was a need of creating affordable broadband solutions to provide last mile connectivity with a sustainability model. Once all the gram panchayats have been connected by the dedicated fibre optical network, the last mile connectivity to all villages will be provided by the commercial telecom operators by expanding the current national network of 38,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to 700,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to cover all 625,000 villages in India. Further we will see that these villages can have affordable and sustainable networks by the community itself in the form of the Community Networks (CNs).
Affordable Broadband Solutions: Technology
A team at IIT Bombay in the year of around 2015 is working on a test bed to provide affordable broadband solutions in the rural areas of the Palghar District in Maharashtra. It was the first test-bed of India to utilize the TV UHF band for providing affordable broadband solutions in India. An experimental license was taken from Wireless Planning Commission (WPC), Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India (GoI) to perform some experiments regarding the spectrum utilization and throughput of the wireless link. Many research articles were also published to showcase the Proof of Concept that the TV UHF band frequency is very useful to provide affordable broadband solutions in the areas of difficult terrains since lower the frequency, better is the propagation of the signals. The team has simply taken off the shelf hardware initially and the RF Cards which convert the 2.4 GHz frequency into the 500 MHz frequency and then the signals are propagated using the Yagi Antenna. The Transmitter are placed on the Telecom tower where 20 Mbps fixed broadband Internet connection is taken to connect the 7 villages within the area of 25 sq. Km. This has shown a great impact since the deployment of these devices is very easy and it has shown good propagation characteristics in the Non Light of Sight (LoS) scenario also. The first test-bed was successfully demonstrated and published as well due to which other Social Welfare funding like Tata Trusts become interested to scale up the project from 7 villages to 25 villages. Since, the TV UHF band is licensed in India and it belongs to the National Broadcasting Agency of India so it was not able to continue with the TV UHF band test-bed and it was now planned to connect these 25 villages with the unlicensed spectrum of 5.8 GHz (i.e. 5825-5875 MHz) and 2.4 GHz of band.
25 villages are selected with the help of the local NGO which is spread in the area of around 100 sq. KM. Tata Teleservices was selected as the Internet Bandwidth partner and a total of 116 Mbps is taken at five different locations to connect these 25 villages. Network planning is done in order to connect these 25 villages with the help of 5 nearest Fibre Point of Presence (PoP) with the Point to Point and Point to Multi-Point Wireless Link. Line of Sight (LoS) clearance is also seen in order to check the feasibility of the link. For affordability of the project, defunct tower already present in these villages are used to deploy the Long Range Point to Point Wireless Devices. Also, low heighted tower of height up to 15m is only restricted in order to avoid Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocation (SACFA) clearance. There is a huge amount of difference in the cost of the tower as compared to the other Telecom Infra Tower of height around 40-60 m. Hence affordability from all the parameters including Active and Passive Infrastructure is accounted in order to make the project cost effective and sustainable.
There were many challenges in order to connect these 25 village’s, since the villages which was selected was one of the core rural tribal areas and hence no private vendor was interested to deploy the network in these villages. This also gives an opportunity for the new Start-up to work in these areas of connecting the rural communities. One of the team member of IIT Bombay has started a new Start-up company in the name of Kirat Communications with an aim of creating Digital Connectivity Platforms in the rural areas. Along with the connectivity project, IIT Bombay has also developed BharatNet Network Planning Tool which is an automated tool that takes the Geo-coordinates of the unconnected villages and the location of the nearest PoP’s and the output is the wireless feasible links. The 25 village project is not only the project where only connectivity is provided but Social Impact is also studied.
Affordable Broadband Solutions: Community Participation & Community Networks
There are various projects being taken by various organizations in order to connect and empower the rural communities, but the only learning from all these project shows that it can only be achieved if there is a participation by the community itself. Thus the name of the term “Community Networks” is actually reflecting the meaning that network built by the people for the people. These networks are only feasible and sustainable if there is active participation of the community which is actually managing and running the network. So one thing about Community Network is very clear that these networks should be self-owned and self-managed by the community since no one else can manage these network if one of the community member is not running or taking care of the same.
Let us take few examples from the above mentioned projects and experiences which end up forming the Community Networks. In the first test-bed of 7 villages, when the Internet bandwidth of 20 Mbps is distributed among the communities, it was very difficult for them to really have Trust in the technology since they have never used technology in their day to day life. One of the best example is that earlier, one of the community member in a village used to collect Electricity bills of around 20 households to go to the nearest payment counter which is about 20 Km away from the village and he used to pay the electricity bills by wasting his half day and losing half day wages also in order to pay the bills. Once the Digital Kiosk was set up in one of the villages, people started paying electricity bills using these Digital Kiosk but they were not really convinced that the bill was actual paid with the help of Digital Kiosk. Hence even after paying the bill from the Digital Kiosk, they used to go to the payment counter again to re-confirm that the bill has actual been paid. In the next month, these Digital Kiosk started giving printed receipt of the paid electricity bill and slowly a Trust in Technology has been created in them that Digital Transactions actual works and they can really get benefits after using these Digital services. Hence, in this way a community model came into existence in which one of the community member (volunteer) is empowering all other community members about the use of Digital services and thus solving their daily problems and saving their time and money by using the same.
If we talk about the sustainable model, community members who started paying their electricity bills are saying their half day wages by paying the utility bills and paying an extra little amount to the community member who is paying these utility bills using Internet connectivity. Thus on every transaction community member is getting ₹ 10 extra which in turn is giving him an opportunity to earn in the village and paying back the Internet bandwidth charges after collecting the money from the community members in the form of a fees for paying the utility bills. Because of this earning model, the concept of Village Level Entrepreneur’s (VLESs) comes into the existence, since no outside service provider can run and manage the network so perfectly than the community members or the local people involved as a volunteer from the same community itself. If we talk about the 25 village’s project, not only providing technology is involved but social impact is also seen in the outcomes of this project. People not only starting accepting the benefits of the technology but they also started paying for the Internet Bandwidth for their personal use. If we talk about sustainability then it also attracts the other organisations like Banking, Health Companies, Big Brands from urban markets who wanted to create a business in these rural areas as well can be done with the help of VLEs. Community Networks are really gaining interest in rural communities in terms of employment opportunities & sustainable business models.
Jaspreet Singh, Director Kirat Communications Private Limited