Andaman optical fiber may pitch India as alternative to China in ASEAN region
The submarine optical fibre from Chennai to Port Blair that promises fifth-generation (5G) connectivity, the latest in cellular wireless technology, to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be the first step for India to set up an alternative to China for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to gain international connectivity, experts say.
The project, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, promises a 2,300-km submarine optical fibre cable network that will connect the islands of Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Chennai. The submarine fibre network is estimated to cost Rs 1,224 crore and a bulk of the fibre being sourced from NEC Corporation Japan, which also provided technical assistance during the installation, said a department of telecommunications (DoT) official.
According to experts, the move will open up a host of opportunities for India in the ASEAN region, where China provides a majority of the submarine optical fibre.
“This will open up more opportunities for India to interact with ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,” said Shyamal Ghosh, former secretary, DoT.
“The PM had set up a line of credit to explore such options in 2017, but due to bureaucratic bottlenecks there has been no progress so far,” he said.
A DoT official said that the department was working towards connecting neighbouring countries with the fibre, but said it would not fall under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) project, which is providing submarine optical fibre connectivity in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Ghosh cited that the inability of the countries to provide a sovereign guarantee for the line of credit because private companies mostly run the telecom sector and that proved to be a major hurdle.
“These (ASEAN) countries are also looking for an alternative, as they don’t want to put all their eggs in the same basket,” he said. “In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the network will provide a stable connection as the previously used satellite was more dependent on the availability of bandwidth, especially because the islands emerge as an important strategic point in the Indian Ocean region (IOR),” he added.
RK Bhatnagar, a former technological adviser to DoT, said the submarine network in the second phase of connections could easily extend to countries such as Singapore and Thailand.
“India is already having an offer of $1 billion line of credit for digital connectivity with ASEAN countries. Countries such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam can take advantage to have their OFC (optical fibre cable) digital highways connecting to the north-eastern states through a protected ring architecture and extension by 700 kilometres (km). Myanmar and other ASEAN countries can enjoy better international bandwidth option via the north-eastern states,” said Bhatnagar.
He also exuded optimism that the move would be useful after the country graduates to 5G technology.
“The cable system with the incremental submarine of 1,050 km can take connectivity to the nearest port of Thailand. Greater Nicobar, the last Indian island, is less than 175 km from Rando Island in Sumatra, Indonesia. India stands to gain politically if 1,925 km of incremental submarine cable can connect three ASEAN countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. This distance is even less than 2,300 km from Chennai to Andaman and Nicobar islands. The project can be funded through the ASEAN line of credit,” he added.
Both Ghosh and Bhatnagar believe that the extension of the cable network could bring in increased opportunities for trade and revenue generation for the country.
“This system route, if extended, to three countries, as suggested along with OFC ring architecture in select ASEAN countries will bring in many more projects for the Indian domestic manufacturing industry,” Bhatnagar said.
The project launched on Monday aims to provide high-speed internet to boost the island’s capabilities in terms of disaster mitigation, relief work and enable access to high-speed internet connectivity.
At present, this is the only undersea optical fibre cable network owned by the Indian government.
Private undersea networks already exist in Mumbai and Chennai, some of which the government had partnered earlier before Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) was merged with Tata Communications.
The project has been completed under the DoT’s initiative USOF, which was set up under the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Act, 2003.
The government, in terms of policy decisions, spearheads the USOF, whose contributors include private players such as DoT licencees Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance Jio and Tata Telecom.
All these telecom companies contribute a mandatory 5% of their licence fee adjusted gross revenue (AGR) to the fund and will now be able to lease the fibre to provide connections in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
According to DoT officials familiar with the matter, the USOF collects nearly Rs 8,000 crore annually.
The USOF has also led initiatives to connect military and paramilitary forces via satellite connectivity such as Very Small Aperture Satellites (VSAT) in the past.
The project aims to establish 1,409 connections in remote areas and has already established 183 of them, said DoT officials familiar with the matter.
Mobile coverage, which is still under the tender process, would also be provided under USOF to remote villages in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the officials added.