An inspiring and at the same time saddening news item
in the Times of India today describes how NGOs are helping rural folk especially in remote parts of the country like the state of Jharkhand connect to the internet. This involves training locals to rig up and maintain local networks. The connectivity is not very high speed and relatively expensive, but it is working and helping local businesses.
The sad part is that USOF India
has not been able to utilize its sizable resources to empower those who want to and can provide rural broadband like these niche operators, but instead is channelizing all its efforts and funds into huge incumbent centric projects broadband which are either under performing or not performing. A USOF wire line broadband project
has rolled out less than a third of mandated number of connections. The connections under this project were to be available to rural pubic at a fraction of the cost of the locally set up networks described above, thanks to USOF subsidy. Also public access broadband facilities have not been set up properly / at all defeating the purpose of the project. Optic fibre connectivity through NOFN / BBNL
is badly delayed. There has been a very apparent move away from bidding which is required by the USOF Rules to handing over projects on nomination basis. Curiously, this problem seems to arise from bureaucratic fear of the implications of dealing with private sector (on account of vigilantism by vested interests) rather than on a sound socioeconomic basis including public good.
Its time for USOF to rescue itself from such distortions. As it is, there have been several demands from industry to scrap the Fund which is based on contributions portion of license fee) of operators. A more thorough ex ante policy / programme analysis including competition related vetting is the need of the hour.