The ₹45,000-crore BharatNet project has gone through multiple delays and changes in its rollout strategy. The project assumes national importance, given that broadband has been recognised as a developmental tool. While the optical-fibre cable has reached a large number of villages, the project has been hit due to a lack of awareness, poor coordination between various entities at the State and Centre, and the lack of an easy mechanism to collect payments for the connection. BusinessLine met Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary, Department of Telecom, to find out how the Centre plans to tackle these challenges going forward.

Our ground reports reveal that there are a lot of last-mile issues related to billing and a lack of awareness at the State-level. How do you plan to address these challenges?

One good thing that has happened of late is that States have started realising that even though the infrastructure is there, they really need to link this up with their own governing institutions. That mandate has to be owned up by the States and that is beginning to happen. For example, Kerala and Karnataka have connected all the gram panchayats (GPs). We give a six-month free period, after that they have to pay for connections. So now Rajasthan has also signed up, and I am sure Arain will also covered under that. However, a much larger message that needs to go out is that broadband is basically a developmental lifeline. It is not just a piece of infrastructure where we only say ‘please come and use’. Through NTP 2018 (new telecom policy on the anvil) we want to give a very clear message that broadband is necessary for people in order to deliver governmental services and governance.

We found out that not many people are aware of this project, including local politicians.

Digital literacy is a key point. It’s not like electricity where everybody knows what it can do and there is no need to educate people. But I think for broadband a certain level of education is required. Of course, when people say they have connectivity on their mobile phones, they don’t need digital literacy, which is also true to a certain extent. But if you want this to go beyond – from being a tool for communication or entertainment – to a tool for empowerment, then, I think, we do need to step up our efforts in digital literacy.

Don’t you think something needs to be done drastically to change the status?

In Bharatnet, game-changing moves are under consideration or rather they are in process. We are rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots on BharatNet. Because unless the services are delivered to the people, they won’t be used. We expect the work to start from May, and we are giving them time up to December to roll out 5-lakh hotspots. So, that, I think, will trigger usage. This will be done with private operators, and we will be funding through viability gap funding. We are also bringing in CSCs – Common Services Centres – as retailers of broadband. These two steps I think will see a change in the scenario.

Is there a need for a coordination body at the national-level with representatives from different stakeholders to monitor this project right up to the village level?

I think we need a national broadband mission, and it has to be done on a mission mode where State governments, Central governments, local governments, including all stakeholders, are a part of it. We are looking at how the NTP can address the issue.