India Deserves Better Quality Bharatnet; How to Maximise Value of Broadband Infra?

"Since India is going to spend a humungous sum of money on BharatNet, it is obligatory that the country derives the maximum value from its investment."

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

When one invests a large sum of money to build or acquire something, one expects that something to last and serve the investor for years to come.

You certainly do not spend your hard-earned money to build a house only for a couple of years or buy a car that is to be junked in no time.

Of course, longevity matters, and it should matter as much, if not more, for the expansive and expensive broadband infrastructure that India is currently building for last-mile connectivity across the country.

Touted as one of the world’s largest telecom projects, India is planning to spend a whopping INR 1.39 lakh crores for the third phase of its ambitious BharatNet project to expand and enhance the country’s rural internet connectivity. Expected to be the backbone to optical fibre-based connectivity, the project will bring high-quality connectivity to 6,40,000 villages over the next 2.5 years with optical fibre based connectivity .

The humungous outlay for the project underscores BharatNet’s significance. On it largely rests the country’s ambitious push to bridge the digital divide and transform itself into a Digital India.

Given the extraordinarily high stakes riding on BharatNet, it is imperative that the project is implemented in a manner so that the digital infrastructure built while it runs its course is robust, and serves the country for at least the next several decades. Anything that is less lasting will undoubtedly be a missed opportunity and certainly not worth the money being spent.

To ensure BharatNet is a resounding success, emphasis therefore needs to be laid on what materials go into building the broadband infrastructure. And one essential commodity whose quality needs to be ensured is the optical fibres that are to be used in the project.

The need for deploying better-quality optical fibre cannot be overstated, more so since BharatNet is 100 percent government funded. The task of choosing the quality of optical fibre to be deployed should therefore not be left to the judgement of vendors. Instead, the government must insist on optical fibre that is future-ready, less bend sensitive, is not prone to failures, has lower optical power loss, and can be used to extend the reach of the network in future.

Moreover, within developing nations such as India, where extensive construction activities are underway, cables are frequently mishandled in the field. This often leads to numerous fibre cuts, causing signal distortion, costly replacements, and prolonged breakdowns. The significance of better quality fibre becomes paramount in such scenarios.

The good news for the government is that such better-quality fibre in the shape of G.657.A1 is rather readily available. To deploy it for substituting the failure-prone legacy G.652.D fibre that is commonly used these days would also not be too expensive. The price difference between the two verities is only marginal, with the cost of A1 fibre expected to come down further with its increased consumption.

With an eye on the network’s robustness, effectiveness, and longevity, advanced countries such as in Europe, the UK and UK have already begun to deploy A1 fibre. Some have even wholly stopped using the legacy D fibre. Instead, they are now using G.657.A1 fibre as the bare minimum standard.

Why the countries have switched to the higher-grade A1 fibre is well understandable. This fibre is more durable and less susceptible to optical power loss due to accidental bends. They are also designed to support the deployment of next-generation optical systems, keeping future requirements in mind.

That greater reliance on A1 fibre is need of the hour was stressed by a joint representation that three major optical fibre manufacturing companies – Birla Furukawa, Corning Technologies, and Sterlite Technologies – wrote a couple of months ago to Ashwini Vaishnaw, the union minister for communications, electronics, and information technology.

In the letter signed by their top executives, the companies argued for transitioning from legacy fibre to better-quality fibre for the larger interest of the country.

Any joint representation by major players can under normal circumstances attract suspicion of attempted ‘cartelization’. But the reasons the three cited for adoption of better-quality fibre were unmistakably watertight. The current specifications for BharatNet, incidentally, allows for the deployment of legacy G.652.D single-mode fibre that could potentially compromise India’s long-term interests.

The three companies in their representation also highlighted another pertinent point – that of deploying only tested telecom equipment in the BharatNet project. Implementation of MTCTE (Mandatory Testing of Telecom Equipment – Phase III and IV) have repeatedly been postponed, in absence of which untested fibre of unverified quality are reportedly being deployed. The companies have advocated that the implementation of MTCTE should not be postponed beyond its current deadline of December 31.

The arguments make immense sense. Since India is going to spend a humungous sum of money on BharatNet, it is obligatory that the country derives the maximum value from its investment. Benefiting from a robust broadband infrastructure will undoubtedly be its citizens spread across tens of thousands of villages.

This article first appeared in ET Government,

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