October 1, 2014
India is a country with poor wireline broadband penetration, but an ambitious and controversial government program called the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) is aimed at dramatically boosting GPON-based fiber connectivity in rural areas throughout the country.
Launched in 2011, NOFN is led by the special-purpose company Bharat Broadband Network Ltd. (BBNL) working in cooperation with government operators Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), Powertel and Railtel. The goal is to ultimately roll out broadband connectivity to 250,000 rural villages (known as gram panchayats) throughout India, making use of existing government operator fiber where available. (See India's $3.5B GPON Goldrush.)
To put the enormity of the task into perspective, India currently has about 1 million kilometers of optical fiber in country, which was laid over the course of 25 years. The NOFN project calls for laying an additional 500,000km of new fiber to fill the large gaps in rural connectivity. The estimated cost of the rollout is US$4 billion.
The potential and pitfalls of NOFN were debated at Light Reading India's Next-Generation Packet Transport Networks conference held in Gurgaon in September. The panel included representatives from BBNL, BSNL and Railtel, and was moderated by IIT Mumbai Professor Abhay Karandikar.
The NOFN goals are noble but the hurdles are high. While the program was originally envisioned to be completed by the end of 2012, it is now years behind schedule. Only pilots have been launched thus far. BBNL Operations Director AK Bhargava said that the current plan is for 25,000 villages to be connected by year end (i.e., just 10% of the final goal). Connectivity would be extended to 50,000 villages by March 2015, and the full 250,000 gram panchayats are to be connected by the end of 2016. Still, there is skepticism that this latest schedule will hold, as the rollout plan has been a moving target ever since first announced. In fact, the schedule itself is one of the key problems. The original unrealistically aggressive NOFN timeline set the project up to fail, and the subsequent resets appear to be knee-jerk reactions rather than thoughtful reassessments of what is feasible. The result is that in constantly setting and then missing targets, NOFN has lost credibility with both the private sector and with the general public. A second issue raised during the conference is that of last-mile connectivity and services demand. Although NOFN is based on a GPON architecture, the PON fiber network extends out to the village only, and not each individual user. Thus GPON is used in aggregation or middle-mile role. BBNL's Bhargava said that the hope is for private operators to build out the last mile and introduce services that make use of the NOFN network. Here, there is a "chicken-and-egg" dilemma, as there is no current service demand to spur operators to build out those last-mile services. This leads to the third issue highlighted during the NFON panel, as well as on several other panels throughout the NGPT conference. To date, the cooperation between the government and the private operators has been poor. Several private operators speaking at NGPT said that, had the private sector been involved in NOFN planning from the beginning, many of the current delays and inefficiencies that have plagued NOFN could have been avoided. Still, Bhargava and his NOFN colleagues made clear that private operator cooperation is desired and necessary for the project to succeed. NOFN is at a critical stage as poor planning, rollout delays and lack of public and private cooperation threaten to derail the ambitious broadband project before it gets off the ground. Still, the idea of NFON is a good one. It is striking that the country with the greatest number of mobile subscribers in the world also has one of the world's poorest wireline broadband infrastructures (ranked number 125 in broadband penetration by the ITU). To realize the full benefits of broadband communications in India, government initiatives such as NOFN will be absolutely critical. — Sterling Perrin, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading
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