The wi-fi in Gharora village in Faridabad, a district in Haryana bordering the National Capital, often doesn’t work.
Om Dev, who operates the common service centre (CSC) in the nondescript village, receives complaints every day. The village-level entrepreneur (VLE) is responsible for ensuring that the public broadband network provides 3G-level speed, apart from making government certificates.
Gharora is the first beneficiary of the government’s ‘Digital India’ mission, which aims to connect all 250,000 gram panchayats to the internet.
In Gharora, wi-fi is beamed using six antennas connected to a central server housed in the CSC, which is located in a high school. The server has been installed by Bharat Broadband Network Ltd in collaboration with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. This is part of the Rs 20,000-crore National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), which was initiated in 2011, and had been in cold storage till recently.
NOFN’s internet line works at 10 Mbps, which means Gharora can easily get download speed similar to 3G.
A user can buy a data plan coupon from the VLE. The plan starts at Rs 20 for six-hours usage with unlimited downloads. For Rs 50, you can use the network for 24 hours. There are monthly plans as well.
The NOFN gives high-speed internet, but with access only in the village. “When the connection works well, YouTube videos run without pausing,” says Om Dev.
There is a reason why he says “when”. The antennas claim to work within 200 metres, but the connection peters out after 30 metres.
“There is no connectivity if you go far from the market,” says Dushyant Tyagi, a teacher at the high school, who stays on the edge of the village. “It is great if you have the antenna on top of your house, but not otherwise.”
NOT JUST A GOVT NETWORK
All this has meant that there are only 50-odd users in a village of 2,038 people. Assuming each buys a Rs 250-coupon every month, it nets the government Rs 12,500 a month. The infrastructure has a one-time cost of Rs 1.5 lakh. This means it will take 12 months to recover the cost itself. But operating costs are minimal as the antennas run on solar power, and the VLEs are not on the government’s payroll.
“We want private internet service providers (ISPs) to use our server so that people can choose whatever plans suits them best,” says Dinesh Tyagi, CEO of CSC SPV, the agency facilitating implementation of the NOFN.
But there is a problem. People have to be convinced to use the internet. So, the coupons are being given out for free this month. CSC SPV is also installing two more antennas in Gharora to sort out the connectivity issue. “Once we show the idea is commercially viable, it will be easy to rope in the ISPs.”
The World Bank’s report on digital dividend released last week said at least 8 in 10 individuals in India own a phone. With nearly a billion people still not connected to the internet, the opportunities for increasing access to digital technology for higher growth, more jobs, and better public services are significant for India.
Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in February Digital India was a $1-trillion (Rs 66.5 lakh-crore) business opportunity. Much of the revenue will come from providing internet connectivity in unpenetrated areas. To realise the potential, the government will have to make pilots such as the one in Gharora work, so that VLEs such as Om Dev do not spend their days addressing complaints.