Inability to add new broadband subscribers at the entry segments and the slow progress in government initiatives including BharatNet may be hindering the data revolution from reaching masses, pushing circa 2018 as one which witnessed lowest growth in subscribers for broadband internet.
An analysis of TRAI data by tech research firm techArc showed that 2018 at 44.7% witnessed lowest growth in the past five years, while the maximum addition in broadband subscribers at 73% growth was in 2016, the year when Jio started its services. 2017 witnessed a 54% growth in subscribers.
“These projects [BharatNet] have time and again been failing their timelines, which is depriving a large unconnected population from the benefits of digital infrastructure,” noted the report, adding that onus is primarily on the government to make “effective use of resources like USO [Universal Service Obligation] Fund, etc.” to reach potential.
The BharatNet programme has an an ambitious target of providing broadband connectivity to 2,50,000 gram panchayats (GPs) by 2019. As of December 31, the infrastructure had been planned for 1,05,000 GPs, Wi-Fi systems had been installed in 39,379 GPs, and out of these were operational in just 11,134 GPs.
Industry watchers said high-speed broadband is key for the success of the Digital India initiative, but, only around 30% of the country’s individuals use the internet currently. “The decline is evident as it is getting difficult to add the new broadband subscribers at the entry segments of users,” Faisal Kawoosa, founder techARC, said. “It would be a herculean task to get the next 500 million on board taking the Indian broadband subscribers to cross 1 billion mark,” he added.
Kawoosa noted that except Jio, there isn’t any provider working on providing economical data-supported feature phones, and there hasn’t been any focused attempt from any operator either. Earlier this year, agencies also reported that telecom ministry pulled up state-owned BSNL and BBNL for underutilisation of BharatNet infrastructure and deficiencies in implementation.
“If the pace of BharatNet could pick up, we will be able to cover large ground, and achieve great growth in increasing the reach of broadband services,” Kawoosa noted. He also anticipates to see development in Jio’s plans for optical fiber-based fixed line broadband, termed Jio Fiber, which has not seen commercial roll-out yet, despite announcements in August 2018.
The total number of broadband subscribers now stands at close to 525 million. With over 97% of broadband users coming from wireless, fixed broadband user count is declining at an average rate of 0.5% per month.