The government of India recently announced that more than 120000 Gram Panchayats out of 250000 have been connected through an optical fibre (OF) network. In this process, approximately 2.5 Lakh Kms of optical fibre has been laid, which is expected to usher a new era of digital revolution in Rural India.
However, it is strange that despite the creation of such a huge fibre network in remote rural areas, there are no serious takers and the impact remains limited. Telcos face a challenge in terms of upgrading their backhaul to fibre and without that, digital evolution in villages seems a far cry. Looking at the way Phase 1 of BharatNet project has been implemented, following are the reasons that can be attributed for the lukewarm impact of the NOFN project.
1. Linear Architecture
Under Phase 1 deployment of Bharatnet, the network has been designed using linear architecture. The endpoint connectivity at the gram panchayat (GP) location has only a single fibre path available, from the nearest exchange. Due to lack of a backup path, the GP location gets isolated in case of any fault. Typically, route length between GP and nearest exchange varies from 5 Km to around 20 Km and probability of isolation increases with the length of the route. Hence achieving uptime of more than 99% (This is a basic requirement of any commercial grade network) becomes very difficult on such networks.
2. Fiber Point of Interconnect (FPOI) and Associated Operational Challenges
During the first phase of deployment, existing fibre laid by BSNL and other PSUs was leveraged to connect the GP with the nearest exchange. In order to reach the GP, maximum possible length was utilized from existing laid fibre for interconnecting exchanges and only incremental fibre route was created as the last mile to reach the GP. In this process Fiber POI was created to tap existing fibre with the last mile. However, this design has created serious operational challenges which affect timely fault localization and restoration, hence uptime.
3. Non-availability of end to end spare fibre for leasing purpose
Normally Communications Service Providers(CSPs) prefer dark fibre leasing for creating reach to distant locations. However, in the first phase, since existing legacy OF cable of PSUs laid in past had been tapped already, this was not a possibility. Now that end to end fibre is owned by two entities (Telecom PSU and BBNL), IRU (Indefeasible Right to Use) agreement for fibre leasing also becomes complicated and end to end accountability in case of SLA issues also becomes vague.
4. Use of GPON Technology
In case of non-availability of dark fibre for leasing, CSPs may choose to opt for bandwidth leasing. In order to have bandwidth leasing option in place, CSPs will need to interface with BBNL infrastructure on select active POI, to carry bandwidth from POI location till the bandwidth drop point. However, the technology to support active POI requires L3 routing functionality so that two diverse networks can be interfaced with proper demarcation. In the case of Bharatnet deployment, GPON has been chosen as the technology which is considered as an access technology. Hence creating POI with GPON OLT is operationally not feasible due to operational requirements of managing demarcation points. Hence active bandwidth leasing is also not feasible in the current form of deployment.
5. Capex prohibitive for potential users
The exchanges for GP aggregation are also located away from city or major locations where CSPs have fibre presence. Assuming that challenges highlighted in the points mentioned above are addressed, the problem of connecting PSU exchange location with tapping points of CSP still remains. In most of the cases, the requirement of tapping CSP fibre with PSU exchange will increase the capex requirement multifold. Hence it may become cost prohibitive to either lease fibre or bandwidth from Bharatnet infrastructure.
From the intent highlighted by the government on various forums, it comes out clearly that fibre infrastructure created with Bharatnet project will be used for enabling digital services to rural areas. To make this intent a reality, It’s imperative that the Government should start acting immediately to upgrade ph-1 infrastructure to make it carrier-grade and future ready.