The great Indian connect
National Optical Fiber Network project will take the information technology to grass roots level and open new opportunities and frontiers for the...
National Optical Fiber Network project will take the information technology to grass roots level and open new opportunities and frontiers for the masses
Since the British laid the railway network to facilitate movement of cargo and passenger traffic from one corner to another in the 18th century, India's connectivity has not transformed so much as it is today. Thanks to digital revolution, satellite communications and the fast changing information technology, we have leap-frogged into the 21st century riding waves of advancements in telephony and Internet. While the mobile phone has become a symbol of resurgent India, the Net is still confined to urban and semi-urban areas, leaving thousands of villages unconnected with the rest of the country and the world. That is going to change in a couple of years if the ambitious programme chalked out by the central government is implemented sincerely and seriously. The plan envisages creation of a National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) connecting all the 250,000 gram panchayats through optical fiber cables. The project, costing about Rs 20,000 crores, is being funded through Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). The state governments' contribution will be to provide free access to lay the optical fiber network in their respective areas. Known as free Right of Way (RoW), it envisages signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding between the central, state government and Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), a special project vehicle set up to execute the plan. Andhra Pradesh is among the first 16 states and Union Territories to sign the MoU on October 26, 2012. The others are: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Manipur, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the Union Territories of Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu and Puducherry. On April 12, this year, nine states and one Union Territory signed the tripartite MoUs, paving the way for laying the optical fiber cable network from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Odisha, Punjab and Andaman & Nicobar Islands were the latest to join the national endeavour. While last year's agreements covered 140,727 gram panchayats, a total of 85,731 villages were brought under the network plan last week, making a grand total of 226,458 gram panchayats. Haryana, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are yet to sign MoUs and they are expected to follow suit soon.A By 2015, all these gram panchayats are expected to have a minimum bandwidth of 100 Mbps with the BBNL providing the necessary infrastructure and technical support. This is the first time, perhaps, after the Green Revolution and White Revolution a few decades ago, modern technology is being taken to grassroots level to transform the lives of masses in a big way by giving them access to unlimited information on everything under the sun, public services, tools to learn new skills and to educate themselves. At the panchayat level, public administration services can be simplified and transparency ensured by digitalizing various village records such as planning, management, monitoring and payments under various government schemes like MNREGA, PDS, land records, birth/death certificates, etc. There will be spin-off benefits in other areas as well once the optical fiber cable network spreads to all villages. Like in urban areas, there will be an explosion of digital services in every field, giving a major boost to local economy, job creation, revenue generation and GDP. To say the scheme is going to be a game-changer for a predominantly agrarian economy is stating the obvious if we go by the strides the country has taken in the IT and allied fields. The global consulting firm McKinsey & Co in a recent report titled: "Online and Upcoming: The Internet's Impact on India", said the Internet has a potential to contribute $100 billion to India's GDP by 2015, which was nearly $30 billion in 2011. The report said further, "the Internet currently contributes a modest 1.6 per cent to India's GDP. This could grow to 2.8 to 3.3 per cent by 2015, if the country achieves its potential for growth in the number of Internet users and Internet technology-related consumption and investment." At present just about 10 per cent of the population in India uses the Internet, which is estimated to be 120 million people. India is projected to overtake the US by 2015 and become the country with second highest number of Internet users after China. Currently over 2 billion people use the Net worldwide and its contribution to global economy in 2010 was $1.7 trillion, which is roughly the present size of India's economy. When the Internet penetrates countryside, the total number of users will automatically go up -- anywhere between 330 million and 370 million � and about 28 percent of the country's population will be accessing the Net by 2015. When these figures are translated into productivity, the wealth generated should be awesome. But the McKinsey report is skeptical, saying that the rural Net access will be only 9 per cent. That means a lot of groundwork needs to be done to tap the rural market using Internet marketing tools if the Net effect on GDP is to be felt. Both McKinsey report and experts point out grey areas that need to be addressed before the whole country is brought under digital network: One, user friendly computers tailor-made for rural folk use in regional languages; two, an army of technical personnel to attend to rural masses' requirements and educate them in using various services; three, change of widely-held perception that the Internet is only an entertainment tool, not an instrument of socio-economic change; four, making the rural masses, particularly village elders, give up their traditional ways of running panchayats and maintaining local records and switch over to digitalization; fifth, remove initial resistance and misgivings about electronic machines replacing human beings. These are all challenges, which are not insurmountable. But the groundwork has to start now, when the optical fiber cables start unrolling underground. Then only we can realize the potential of Internet in transforming our villages and claim 'India is connected.'