In one corner of the Ramnagar village panchayat office, in Panisagar block of Tripura, is a defunct four-year-old computer. The machine, connected with a 10 mbps broadband line was supposed to bring digital services to this remote village in the north-eastern state. The broadband connection along with a set of printer-copier-fax, a high resolution camera to participate in video-conferencing, a 32-inch LCD TV and a high capacity UPS was provided free in 2012, under a pilot project of the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) roll out. Three years later, all of this lies idle, under a thick layer of dust.

Similar story unfolds 2,500 km away in Rajasthan’s Ajmer, where a tele-medicine centre at the JLN Medical College and Hospital has been non-functional for the past several months. The unit uses the broadband connectivity under the NOFN to connect with patients in Fatehgarh in Arain tehsil in Rajasthan, one of the other districts that were chosen for the pilot project. But the patients have been left in lurch after the tele-medicine equipment at Fatehgarh was stolen. “I have been sending a report every month that I am unable to connect with any patients,” says Sanjiv Maheshwari, who manages the tele-medicine unit at the JLN Hospital. “It has no equipment currently. Despite repeated reminders, things have not been restored,” he says.

Panisagar and Arain are among the villages which have been connected by the NOFN, an ambitious initiative by the Centre to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats across the country. The project, announced in October 2011, was supposed to be commissioned in two years at a cost estimated at ₹20,000 crore. But even after four years, less than 6,000 gram panchayats have been connected.

When BusinessLine reporters visited these villages in 2014, the reasons for the delay at the ground level were very clear – lack of coordination between agencies, low awareness of internet and non-availability of a viable business model. Two years later, BusinessLine went back to the same villages along with some of the new ones connected by the optical fibre cable and found that nothing much has changed.

Maintenance problem

For instance, in Radhanagar and Krishnanagar, both in Kumarghat block of Tripura, the NOFN link is unused due to defunct computer hardware. When Busines Line visited Panisagar in February 2014, the entire administration was geared to make maximum use of the facility. Health centres at Jalabasa, Panisagar or Tilthai were conducting e-OPD services at panchyats. The education department lined up teachers to offer free coaching to high school students in the block using the video-conferencing facility. Schools were downloading lessons from Youtube to make teaching methods interactive. Even the agriculture department participated in a few video-conferences with farmers. The euphoria lasted barely a year. The last time any health centre in the block witnessed e-OPD or e-learning services were in 2014. Most of the internet links are now lying unused owing to maintenance issues.

The IT personnel recruited by NOFN authorities in blocks and panchayats were the guiding force of the pilot, coordinating between different departments. But their jobs came at stake with the closure of the pilot in March 2015. The project was later extended to March 2016, but the payment to IT assistants in panchayats became staggered. As panchayats denied the responsibility, most of the personnel left. NIC’s support to schools and hospitals ended in March 2015. Though the bandwidth is still provided free of cost, no one took interest in paying the maintenance charges. “The project has gone haywire,” says Tapas Sinha, Block Development Officer of Panisagar. The huge Sony Bravia screen on the wall that was once provided to help him participate in video-conferences is now used to see family photographs.

Even where the hardware and the network is in working condition, the use is limited to updating NREGA job details. Bidyut Dutta, Joint Director IT of Tripura says the State has already added 16 services to its e-governance initiative. These include the much needed caste certificates, survival certificate, land valuation certificate and others. Currently, villagers are expected to travel to the sub-divisional headquarters for documents like caste certificate. But ask panchayat secretaries Abhijit Deb of Bilaspur or Samiran Das of Ambedkar-nagar and they are either unaware of such digital services or don’t feel the need to use the facilities.

Down south, 14 villages in Parawada mandal in Visakhapatnam district have broadband connectivity at the panchayat offices, schools, veterinary hospitals, grameena banks and other government institutions. But at present the broadband connections are lying unused, again for want of maintenance.

B Ravi, who was appointed the operator for Parawada, said it was a great project to begin with. "Operators were appointed for all the villages and I was in charge of Parawada village. Video conferencing was done on a regular basis and the public was finding it very useful. If there was any problem, it used to be rectified and the system was functioning, but subsequently the appointment of the operators was not renewed and for the past one year or so the systems in most of the offices are not functioning," he said. Parawada District collector N Yuvaraj, says that the project has not been handed over to the State and therefore the district authorities are not able to attend to it.

Lack of coordination among the various agencies involved in the project is a common theme wherever the broadband network has been rolled out. The Centre created a special purpose vehicle (SPV), Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), to act as the executing agency responsible for overseeing the project, determining reference prices for each activity, and procuring optical fibre. BSNL, RailTel and PGCIL were responsible for trenching and ducting as well as laying the fibre. However, they possessed limited autonomy to make decisions in matters of price discovery. With the primary objective of controlling costs and minimising unnecessary expenditure, BBNL established reference prices for each activity to be undertaken by the CPSU. As a result however, any time the price discovered by the CPSU for contracting exceeded this reference price by over 10%, the CPSU was required to obtain additional approvals from BBNL. Such constant back and forth mired the project in time overruns while also triggering institutional friction between BBNL and the CPSUs

Investigation Realising the slow pace of implementation and marred by day to day issues, the Department of Telecommunications constituted a Committee to review the strategy in January 2015. The Committee, in its report, said that the design of the NOFN programme assumed that the final leg of last mile access and service provision to end-users would be covered by the private sector. However, this resulted in the executing agencies lacking inherent incentives to ensure that the network be built to high quality standards.

The Committee’s report also identified a lack of long-term planning in other network elements such as service provisioning, bandwidth utilisation, operations and maintenance and allocation of responsibilities for individual project components, which it attributed to BBNL’s shortage of a large professional staff with relevant management proficiency. Despite outlining the challenges in the model, the Committee proposed to continue with the CPSU-led model and State-led model in most regions. It proposed to introduce private operators under an EPC model only in 10 of the 22 telecom circles.

In March 2016, the TRAI issued a paper punching holes in the Committee’s observations. “It appears that the CPSU and State-led models outlined in the Committee Report share many of the same characteristics of the NOFN implementation model that have been previously outlined as increasing the risk of failure due to misaligned incentives,” the TRAI said. Rubbishing the EPC model for private players, the Trai said, “With the private contractor having no long-term stake post-deployment and the weak monitoring capacity of the public monitoring agency (especially given the highly technical nature of the project and the sheer volume of work that must be monitored), there exist perverse incentives for private contractors to increase profit margins by reducing costs through the deployment of poor quality infrastructure and there exist no incentives for speedy implementation (since the executing agency’s source of revenue is independent of how quickly the network is made operational).”

Instead, the telecom regulator has proposed a PPP model as it creates long-term private engagement. “The concessionaire should be responsible for deployment as well as operating and marketing the network. Given the desirability of leveraging private sector efficiency and technical capacity but recognising that many rural areas may not be perceived by it as lucrative enough, Viability Gap Funding should be offered to encourage private infrastructure deployment and operations in such area,” the TRAI said in its recommendations issue in March.

Caught between its own Committee report and the TRAI recommendations, the Centre is yet to decide on how to speed up the broadband project.

(With inputs from Navadha Pandey, K V Kurmanath, Ch R S Sarma and Rutam Vora)

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