Economic Times: January, 2017
New Delhi: In a bid to provide last-mile connectivity in far-flung areas — the biggest impediment towards a digital and cashless economy — the government is embarking on an ambitious project to provide free WiFi hotspots at more than 1,000 gram panchayats. Apart from providing internet connectivity for mass use, the programme seeks to enable delivery of services like health and education.
Called Digital Village, the pilot project will initially be rolled out in as many as 1,050 gram panchayats. “The project is a public-private partnership, and will be driven through the common service centres (CSCs),” Aruna Sundararajan, secretary at Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), told ET. “We’ll be partnering with different service providers to do it.”
CSCs are the nodal points in rural areas or villages for delivery of digital services — from filling out online forms for government services such as driving licence and voter ID card to making digital payments — and are the keys to take Digital India to ‘Bharat’, or rural India.
According to another senior government official, the project has been approved with a budget of Rs 423.26 crore, and will be implemented over a period of three years, including two-and-half years of operations and maintenance. MeitY will be looking at hybrid technologies to implement the project and village-level entrepreneurs, or the managers of CSCs, will become the “retailers of bandwidth” in the villages and provide free WiFi hotspots in the gram panchayat. In addition to free WiFi hotspots, the services that will be provided include telemedicine, tele-education, LED lighting and skill development.
“The idea of the pilot project is to demonstrate how the digital technologies and the connectivity delivered through BharatNet can be leveraged to provide basic development social sector services such as health, education, skilling, etc, on a scalable manner to improve the quality of life in rural areas,” said the senior official who didn’t wish to be named.
The government’s BharatNet project seeks to provide broadband connectivity to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats through fibre optic connections. The project has overshot its implementation estimates due to several issues, and the government is open to looking at alternatives to fibre optic technology.
WiFi can be one of those. “We are looking at all options. We’re looking at a major WiFi push, which need not necessarily be only fibre optic but taking connectivity from the nearest place using WiFi to reach remote villages while fibre can take a little more time,” said Sundararajan. The implementation model proposed for Digital Village is similar to that of Aadhaar where service providers are paid based on the actual delivery of services.