Can RailTel improve Internet connectivity for rural India?

RailTelNew Delhi: After getting a fresh look from NOFN to BharatNet, the project is once again seeing some light of day but having already missed two earlier deadlines and still so many complexities around, it will not be surprising if the large-scale project consumes over five years just to start delivering any benefits.

However, is it prudent to deprive the rural folks from high-speed Internet for the next five years? Can’t we explore some alternatives to make it accessible to the hinterlands in the next 6-12 months? or in other words, can’t we see a Digital India dream sans NOFN?

RailWire, the retail broadband initiative of RailTel, launched in joint venture partnership with Bangalore based Sobha Rennaissance Information Technologies (SRIT) provides broadband access to users in PPP mode wherein the license obligation and telecom infrastructure, network security and customer authentication is done by RailTel and the last mile access is provided by access network provider (ANPs) like local cable operators, housing societies or institutions.

Considering that there are over 120 million cable TV homes in the country today, and even if 50% opt for broadband, RailWire type of high-speed broadband solutions could easily reach 60 million homes in about two years time.

These shall be fixed/wired connections capable of delivering 10 MBPS to each household and can be scaled up to 100 MBPS suitably scaling up backend electronics in distribution network.

“With their project implementation capabilities they can be asked to provide last mile with the help of BSNL or other utilities who have Right of Way access. While these initiatives are profit centers they have to be used more effectively to provide better connectivity solutions. They have capacity, ground infrastructure, project management, implementation and maintenance expertise and resources. I don’t see any reason why Railtel can’t evolve into a telecom service provider (TSP) and not just an infrastructure provider or partial ISP,” says Girish Trivedi, Co-founder, Director, Monk Consulting.

RailTel has already used RailWire platform to provide broadband for the Digital Programs of state governments, particularly in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh where GPs have been connected with the fiber and is scalable to 100 MBPS. In Kerala, RailTel connected all the 450 village offices in three districts under Digital Kerala Program and in Madhya Pradesh also RailTel has connected over 100 GPs and slated to connect about 1,500 GPs in the next six months.

“RailTel is similar to any other Tier1 operator and it has extensive infrastructure that can form the basis of a pan-India backbone network with local access partners providing access on-ramps to the backbone,” says Ryan Perera, Country Head, Ciena. So, is it doable?

Sources in the government say, these POPs are connected to the backbone available at Railway Stations in a ring configuration thereby enhancing availability. The last mile to the villages is being maintained by local cable TV operator,s who are readily accessible on call to the end user. This arrangement is successfully working wherein the ANP is able to connect to Data POP of service provider easily (say 1-2 km.).

However, where the cable needs to be extended further, the capex is unviable for ANP, and this is to be compensated by TSP or its associates. But on the flip side, PK Agarwal, Director, Planning at BBNL, says, “RailWire does not have connectivity across India. It may be feasible but it would be confined to selected pockets only.” Besides, in the cable TV segment, MSOs are typically present in district head quarters /Taluka head quarter with fiber network all the way to villages. RailTel, in this project, had opened new PoPs at distributor locations spread over the interior of the district, on fiber made available by the distributor /MSO.

“Cable operators have presence in city they don’t have connectivity between the cities. The basic thing a cable operator will require is connectivity and we are dependent upon telcos for the last mile access. Local cable operators have last mile connectivity but they don’t have connectivity within cities,” says Satyen Sawant, Head – Product and Channels at DEN Networks.

At the same time, the Wi-Fi model is something the government should be contemplating. It should look at offering Wi-Fi at hourly basis for those who travel often and need Internet connectivity only for a few hours rather than opting in for a FUP (Fair Usage Policy) plan.

Bobby Sarin, Founder and CEO, Ozone Networks, says: “Wi-Fi standalone has 300 MBPS of speed, the only constraint with Wi-Fi is the backhaul. We won’t be fully dependent on fiber project, but we can use other mechanism of taking the traffic back to the Internet.”

Offering another point of view, Sanchit Vir Gogia, Chief Analyst and Group CEO, Greyhound Research, says: “A successful example of implementation of BharatNet by individual state is led by Andhra Pradesh. For executing this project, the state has created its own corporation which is named as Andhra Pradesh Fibre Corporation which would be responsible for managing the network and own the assets. Another body, ‘Digital Andhra Corporation’ which is using Public-Private-Partnership model is responsible for creation of ecosystem for broadband adoption,” he adds.

The government needs to look at various business models to cater to various user segments – households, SMBs and SMEs, clusters and larger enterprises. The pricing for each segment will vary on the usage of each segment, adds Gogia. As per the Railwire website, the tariffs and services for various segments of household users and SMEs are starting with Rs 499 and Rs 14,999 respectively. The broadband dream that has been sold to over a billion Indians should be at least fulfilled partially till the time BharatNet becomes a full-fledged reality. Let’s not delay and deprive the rural India from the right to use Internet!

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