Why NOFN Project Failed To Take Off?

The UPA 2 government had a big ambition of connecting 250,000 gram panchayats in their five year tenure. On 25th October, 2011, the government of India approved setting up of NOFN (national optical fiber network) to provide connectivity to all 250,000 gram panchayats in the country by ensuring broadband connectivity with adequate bandwidth. This was to be achieved by utilizing the existing optical fiber cable and extending optical fiber cable to gram panchayats. The tenure got completed in May 2014 but their only achievement is completion of pilot projects in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura.

BBNL (Bharat Broadband Network Limited), the nodal wing for NOFN has completed pilot projects in three blocks covering 58 gram panchayats in Arian in Ajmer district, Parvada in Visakhapatnam and Panisagar in North Tripura district. Not only this, BBNL failure can be judged from the fact that none of the existing operators say Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, RCOM, Aircel, MTS, Idea Cellular, Uninor and others have shown any interest to work on any applications in these pilot projects even after repeated request from higher officials.

BBNL has now come up with the new dates for NOFN completion which states Phase I completion of 100,000 villages by December 2014, phase II completion of 100,000 additional villages by December 2015 and remaining 50,000 villages by March 2016. Even the new dates of completion of NOFN project by BBNL looks highly impossible that the tenders have still not been finalized . So, the big question is why did NOFN failed to take off even after five years of its announcement?

No Business Model: The business model for NOFN shifted during the course of the event. Initially, it was to provide rural broadband backbone and providing bandwidth to existing operators and later it shifted to providing services to government departments thereby BBNL themselves becoming the operator.

At present optical fiber cable connectivity is available in all state capitals, districts headquarters and up to the block level and there was a plan to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats in the country. This will be done by utilizing existing fibers of PSUs (BSNL, Railtel and PowerGrid) and laying incremental fiber to connect to gram panchayats wherever necessary. Dark fiber network thus created will be lit by appropriate technology thus creating sufficient bandwidth at the gram panchayats. With plan to invest Rs 20,000+ crore in the project from USO (universal service obligation) fund and with changing business model, making BBNL a profitable business was a big question mark as the funds kept on increasing from existing Rs 20,000 crore with a change in business plan as the project moved ahead. This shows a big failure on the planning part of the government of making a sustainable business model for rural broadband.

The government has to stress on a sustainable business model right from the beginning so that the government does not keep on pumping money every time for NOFN.

Not sticking To Time: NOFN’s project was planned to be completed by December 2012 but till date majority of tenders have not been finalized and the new dates for completion is March 2016 but nobody in the department is willing to go on record with respect to project completion. With BBNL not sure about its completion, operators are also making their own plan for providing rural coverage through 3G and 4G towers and later give various services in rural areas. Once operators firm up their plan for providing broadband in large villages, there would be duplication of network with NOFN and NOFN network would not be utilized for those villages.

So, if BBNL is really serious about the project they have to stick to the new timetable as this will give confidence to existing operators to use NOFN network wherever they see it is cost effective vis-a-vis their own implementation.

No Real Time Applications: The authorities have said that ministry of food and civil supplies say public distribution system, ministry of education, ministry of health, ministry of rural development have come on board but one has to see real applications from these departments running on pilot sites in three states to give confidence to operators that this is real and this will in turn benefit can be beneficial w.r.t. G2C, B2B, P2P, B2C etc. covering E-education, remote health monitoring, E-governance, weather, agriculture etc. which can be accessed by common man through NOFN.

So, BBNL has to work with these departments and show a set of applications which is cost effective to be deployed on a large scale. If they are successful in this endeavor then only we will see NOFN taking off in the country.


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