Another first: How Kerala took a big step towards a world where internet access is a basic right

Resource crunch, as well as a slew of other reasons, slowed down the state government's ambitious K-FON project.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jun 06, 2023 | 3:42 PM Updated Jun 06, 2023 | 5:07 PM

The initial K-FON plan was to connect Kerala’s more than 14,000 below-the-poverty-line families with the cyberspace. (Facebook)

The K-FON project has been buffering for long — six years to be precise —  ever since the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government in Kerala announced the plan.

Amid an Opposition boycott, the CPI(M)-led LDF government launched the much-touted Kerala Fibre Optical Network (K-FON) on Monday, 5 June.

A first in the country, K-FON was meant to bridge the digital divide and make the internet a basic right of citizens.

It would offer free broadband services to low-income families, providing them with a flat world, or a level playing field, as columnist Thomas L Friedman would prefer to put it.

The idea is noble and worth emulating. However, it would take many more months for all beneficiaries to get on the information highway.

Despite all the hype and preparations, including availing clearances at various levels and using power transmission poles of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) to draw the internet cables, the K-FON could connect hardly 1,000 families till the inaugural day.

Officials told South First that cables were laid across the state, but in the first phase — or four months — only 6,900 families would benefit from the network.

The original plan

The initial plan was to connect Kerala’s more than 14,000 below-the-poverty-line families with cyberspace.

However, a lack of infrastructure and financial resources prevented the state from aggressively pursuing the ambitious mission, which has already won national and international attention.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launching the K-FON project on 5 June. (Supplied)

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launching the K-FON project on 5 June. (Supplied)

As intended initially, 100 low-income families from every Assembly constituency should have received free internet connection in the first phase itself.

The state has 140 Assembly segments, and the local self-governing bodies were directed to prepare lists of beneficiaries in their respective areas. So far, only  2,015 homes have been connected.

In the case of government offices, the initial plan was to give 30,000 connections in the first phase.

Officials said cables were laid for connecting 26,492 offices, but only 17,412 offices and government institutions have been connected so far.

Neither the government nor the implementing agency has fixed a time limit for the general public to access the connection by paying the prevailing market tariff.

The government has promised to provide internet facilities far below the tariff of corporate giants, and the profit from that business would be utilised to bridge the digital divide that kept low-income families off the internet.

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The challenges

National highways are being widened In many parts of the state, necessitating the shifting of electric poles.

This is one of the hindrances to the rolling out of the K-FON project to urban and peri-urban areas, as per the initial plan.

K-FON work in progress in Kasaragod. (Photo: K-FON)

K-FON work in progress in Kasaragod. (Photo: K-FON)

Objections raised by the railways, too, affected the speedy laying of cables.

In the case of forest villages and tribal colonies, several conservation-related norms and regulations stymied the project — albeit temporarily.

In many places, even those entitled to get free connections expressed apprehensions over the internet speed.

The government promised that selected families could use 1.5 GB (gigabytes) of data at speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) every day, and each month, they could use 150 GB of data.

Eight bits make a byte. Thus, to convert any denomination of bits to bytes, one needs to divide the number in bits by eight. Thus, 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) is the equivalent of 128 megabytes per second (MBps), if one goes by the standard that 1 GB = 1028 MB.

Amidst all criticisms, K-FON Managing Director K Santhosh Babu expressed confidence that it would be a matter of time and everything would be on track by December. He said the facility was being implemented on a war footing, and loopholes were being plugged.

“Now we have achieved a big goal. Kerala is the only state with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) licence and an internet-connectivity project,” he told South First.

“Using our sanctioned infrastructure provider (IP) licence, K-FON can acquire fibre-optic lines, towers, duct space, network, and other infrastructure facilities required for setting up an optic fibre cable network. We can also lease out, rent out, or sell equipment to other providers,” he added.

In the coming phase, K-FON would rent out its optical-fibre network across the state to private service providers to raise a steady income. The facility will be known as “lease to the line”.

The current cable line comprises 48 fibres, of which two dozen were required to function K-FON and the state electricity board. The remaining fibres would be rented out.

As per the plan, K-FON envisions a fibre network of over 30,000 km in the state, and the state-run ISP expects to earn an annual revenue of ₹60 crore.

Also read: South Asia’s first water metro sets sail in Kochi

Charges of irregularities

Meanwhile, Kerala’s Leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan accused the K-FON management of committing irregularities and spending too much on the project.

VD Satheesan, the Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly. (Sourced)

VD Satheesan, the Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly. (Sourced)

“The expense for the inaugural ceremony was ₹4.35 crore. Such a lavish extravaganza is being organised when the state has been facing an acute financial crisis. Despite all tall claims, the project has just been initiated and is in its primary stage,” he told South First.

He said the company that won the tender for laying optical ground wire (OPGW) cable for the K-FON project violated all norms.

Satheesan said the company used substandard cables imported from China, ignoring pleas to use locally available quality material.

As per the original agreement, the cables should have been made in India.

“No testing of the efficacy of the cables was conducted. The rules say that the firm should have experience laying cables to a distance of at least 250 km,” Satheesan alleged.

“The tender was awarded to LS Cables India Pvt Ltd by violating all applicable norms,” the Congress leader said.

He also said the Point of Presence (PoP) provided by Presidio, the firm alleged to have links with the chief minister, also did not meet the standards.

The Opposition leader also demanded a district-wise list of connections provided under the project. Instead of providing the list, the chief minister has been making tall claims, he added.

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The Kerala vision

Viajyan“India has the most number of internet shutdowns in the world. There have been more than 700 shutdowns in the past 10 years,” Vijayan pointed out while inaugurating the K-FON project.

“In such a country, a state government is uniquely involved in making the Internet available to all. As such, the K-FON project is becoming another example of the government and state’s popular alternative policies,” he said.

The chief minister highlighted the benefits of K-FON in the post-pandemic scenario.

“A new work culture is emerging in the post-Covid era, where work from home, work near home and work away from home are becoming increasingly common,” he explained.

“Better internet services should be provided everywhere if our youth are to benefit from them. The K-FON project makes it possible,” Vijayan said.

“Many tourists come to Kerala to live and work from here. Through K-FoN, we can create a big movement in the state’s economic sector by attracting people with such a mindset,” the chief minister said.

“Meanwhile, by ensuring connectivity in places such as the state’s lone and remote tribal panchayat Edamalakuudy, we can ensure that everyone is part of this real Kerala story,” Vijayan said, referring to an eponymous and controversial movie that showed the state in a bad light.

Edamalakkudy is a remote tribal village and grama panchayat located between the Idamalayar Reserve Forest and the Mankulam Forest Division of the Anamalai hills in the Idukki district.

Also read: Kerala to (finally) construct road to its only tribal gram panchayat

A change for the better

Politically, the LDF has been treating K-FON as an alternative to the corporate sector in the telecom field. It said the project has been launched to free people from the exploitation of private sector cable networks and mobile service providers.

Kerala K-Fon

The K-FON project aims to provide internet connection to 14,000 BPL families. (Creative Commons)

Babu asserted that K-FoN services would be available at rates lower than those offered by other service providers. “The services could be provided at high speed and with the same quality throughout Kerala, irrespective of urban and rural areas,” he said.

Incidentally, the first phase of K-FON was commissioned hardly a week after Vijayan declared Kerala as India’s first fully e-governed state. The e-office system has already been implemented in the Secretariat, district collectorates, commissionerates and directorates.

As many as 900 government services, comprising all services usually required by the public, have been made available through a single-window portal.

The government has also begun a digital literacy campaign at the grassroots level through various local bodies to ensure everyone could access basic Internet services.

“If the K-FON project achieves what has been envisaged, it can bring about a change at the grassroots level regarding access and opportunities,” Babu said.