The Telecom Performance Indicators Report 2022-23, published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), reveals that the number of broadband subscribers (with a minimum downlink speed of 2 Mbps) in the country has reached about 840 million out of which about 340 million and 500 million, respectively, are rural and urban subscribers.

In particular, in rural areas, the percentage of telecom subscribers that have broadband connection has increased twofold in the past five years to reach about 65 per cent. This huge growth in rural broadband subscription is due to many of the following initiatives.

Providing universal service at affordable prices has always been a regulatory challenge all over the world. Regulatory economics indicates that unless we have a monopoly service provider who can cross-subsidise the rural loss using high price plans for urban subscribers, any option including introducing competition does not yield the intended benefits to the rural populace.

The widely adopted principle is to subsidise the deployment of rural networks through Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) — referred to as Bharath Nidhi in the Telecom Act 2023. India enacted the setting up of USOF in 1997, by charging a Universal Service Levy (USL) of 5 per cent of adjusted gross revenue of the operators. Today, the corpus of USOF collected over the years has been put into many areas.

Rural connectivity

First, is the completion of one of the largest rural broadband connectivity projects in the world, BharathNet, deploying about 6,50,000 route km of optic fibre connectivity to more than 2,00,000 village panchayats, thereby improving access to robust backhaul network connectivity. With this in place, and by offering affordable broadband tariffs, the scheme has resulted in data usage exceeding 100,000 terabytes per month.

With two phases completed, and the third phase expected to start soon, covering the remaining 50,000 village panchayats, the BharathNet project that was started in 2011 is realising its true potential in providing rural broadband connectivity.

A substantial portion of the USOF amounting to about ₹40,000 crore have been disbursed for this project alone.

Given a robust backhaul, the next step is to provide affordable and easy access. The wi-fi density in India is very low compared to many countries. Wi-fi offloading, that enables shifting the traffic from the cellular broadband network to wi-fi networks is one of the strategies used by the telcos in many countries to do effective traffic management. However, in India we have not seen this due to the disinterest exhibited by the telcos.

In order to improve penetration of wi-fi hotspots, the Prime Minister Wireless Access Network Interface (PM WANI) was conceptualised by TRAI in 2018, which is now being rolled out across the country. WANI is an interoperable wi-fi network that provides flexible authentication and payment models that allows users to access wi-fi on the go.

Another objective of WANI is to create an abundance of last mile wi-fi access providers (aka public data offices — PDOs) in the form of local micro entrepreneurs to provide ubiquitous wi-fi access.

The relatively higher leased line charges levied by the telcos has been a deterrent for the PDOs to provide sustainable wi-fi service. Since leased line tariffs are under tariff forbearance, the regulator is also not able to make any headway. The government should issue a separate lower tariff for backhaul leased line for WANI-registered PDOs so that wi-fi provided by the PDOs take off in larger scale.

The third, is a hard look at villages and areas in the country that have been uncovered. With funding from USOF, 354 of these uncovered villages are being covered through a subsidised mobile tower installation scheme. The difficult geographical terrain of the North-East region of the country increases the average cost per connection.

Mobile towers

With this in mind, mobile towers are being commissioned in the North East region with support from USOF. Apart from these, through the Comprehensive Telecom Development Project (CTDP) of the government of India, the submarine optic fibre cable connecting mainland India to Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands is providing robust broadband connectivity compared to the relatively expensive and unreliable satellite based low bandwidth connectivity these islands had earlier.

Role of BSNL

Fourth, is the role of the state-owned enterprise (SOE), BSNL. One of the regulatory interventions in augmenting universal service is to equip the SOE to manage the roll-out of rural broadband networks. While countries such as the US that do not have an SOE depend on private telcos to provide universal broadband connectivity, India is fortunate to still have BSNL.

In recent years, efforts have been initiated by the government to streamline processes and operations within BSNL to effectively compete with private telcos. The BharatNet Udyami scheme being offered by BSNL to provide very low price Fiber To The Home broadband connectivity to rural households, funded through the USOF, has met with success. The recent announcements regarding 4G rollout by BSNL are timely, to accelerate the momentum towards rural broadband connectivity in the country.

For India to attain “broadband for all” as indicated in the National Digital Communications Policy 2018, sustainable efforts such as the above are the need of the hour.

The writer is Professor, IIIT-Bangalore