Kerala has had a transformative journey since its venture into digitalization in the 2000s. With the penetration of internet technology and rising levels of e-literacy, it became imperative for the Government to adopt the e-delivery mode of information and services to its citizens. From government service dissemination centres like FRIENDS in the 2000s to Service and Payroll Administrative Repository for Kerala (SPARK), e-Health, e-Office, e-Procurement, CCTNS, e-District, SDPK, etc. in 2020, the demand continues to grow for e-Governance services that impact the lives of the common man. The state has been a pioneer in the country in making investments towards building core digital infrastructure to deliver e-Governance services.
KSWAN and beyond
With major government processes digitalized, the State Data Centre (SDC) is the first of its kind in the country dedicated for hosting e-Governance applications only. i.e., all government institutions across the State access the SDC to run their routine operations. Kerala State Wide Area Network (KSWAN) is the main network infrastructure for e-governance in the state. However, the existing connectivity through KSWAN is limited to about 3,800 government offices for delivery of e-Gov services. This infrastructure utilizes bandwidth provided by the Service Providers in lieu of the RoW provided to them by the Government. There are no defined SLAs for such bandwidth provisioned and hence the Government has very little control in ensuring a reliable, robust and secure network. Most of the end institutions are connected over wireless through KSWAN and a few through wired media. The remaining institutions, which are not covered under KSWAN, have leased internet bandwidth from service providers to access the applications hosted in SDC. KSWAN is limited by access, capacity and scalability, to cater to 30,000+ government institutions in the state. Therefore, the Government felt the need to build a dedicated optical fibre backbone capable of efficient service delivery, assured Quality of Service (QoS), reliability, redundancy, security and scalable in nature for meeting future bandwidth demands.
As far as the network infrastructure of the TELCOs in the state is concerned, their fibre infrastructure in the rural areas is limited. This is due to high CAPEX and stringent RoW conditions. Hence, high-speed wireless connectivity (3G/4G) is limited in rural areas as TELCOs need to set up more towers to provide such services. Moreover, the majority of the existing telecom towers are connected via wireless which limits the bandwidth that can be provided to the public.
The need for better bandwidth
The state witnessed a frenetic pace in adopting smarter solutions such as
- video conferencing, video surveillance, smart traffic management, telemedicine, smart classrooms/e-education, e-Courts, smart meters and asset tracking
- related responsible technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Storage, Internet of Things, Machine-to-Machine (M2M)
- rise in mobility including multiple device ownerships
- growth in the number of internet users.
All these are major contributing factors to the incessantly growing bandwidth demands. SD/HD/UHD video-based services are set to increase at unprecedented rates and will have a more pronounced/multiplier effect on the bandwidth demand. To cater to these demands, investment is required in fibre and faster electronics. As the technology up-gradation and adoption gathered pace, the gap between the digital haves and have-nots was more glaring. It is in this context that in the state budget speech 2017, the honourable Finance Minister announced that free internet connections will be provided to 20 lakh economically backward families and subsidized internet for others. On a social front, the government recognized the need for internet access for all of its citizens in a digital society and declared “Internet as a basic right”.
Meanwhile, KSEBL decided to undertake the Reliable Communication & Data Acquisition Network (RCDAN) project utilizing the Power System Development Fund (PSDF) under the mandate of the Ministry of Power. The project involves laying optical fibre cable over EHT lines connecting their substations to help improve their grid communication, remote management of its safety and security. Thus, the Government of Kerala decided to implement the project utilizing KSEBL infrastructure to set up the network infrastructure by leveraging its transmission and distribution networks and making both KSITIL and KSEBL equal partners in the joint venture for the project called Kerala Fibre Optic Network Ltd (KFON Ltd). This removed the hassles of getting RoW permissions. By adopting an aerial mode of laying, the project would be completed on a mission mode. The commendable pace at which KSEBL restored the electricity network which got damaged during the 2018 floods is a testimony to this fact.
Objectives of KFON
KFON is an audacious project of the Government aiming to obviate the digital divide. This project is to be a complementary infrastructure to the existing telecom ecosystem in the State. KFON is based on the principles of non-discriminatory treatment, as per the recommendations of TRAI, i.e., without any preferential treatment to any service provider or business segment. It essentially acts as an information super-highway through the creation of a robust core and middle-mile infrastructure. This network can be leveraged by any provider at any level of the business segment – TSP/ISP/MSO/LCO – to augment their connectivity gaps at their core network without the burden of stringent RoW and intensive CAPEX requirements. The networks created by these operators at the community level can then connect to KFON and deliver access and services to underserved areas that may otherwise be financially unattractive for mainstream providers. In due course, this model can lead the market forces to act and increase competition in providing better connectivity services to the citizens. The government can even explore delivering e-Governance services to citizens through such networks.
Thus, the KFON network will function as a strong foundation for all G2G, G2C, B2C interactions. The major objectives of KFON are the following.
- Create a core network infrastructure (information highway) with non-discriminatory access to all service providers so as they can augment their connectivity gap.
- Provide a reliable, secure and scalable intranet connecting all government offices, educational institutions, hospitals, etc.
- Partner with MSOs, TSPs, ISPs for providing free internet to economically backward households.
To achieve these objectives and streamline the implementation of the project, it has been structured to be completed as two tracks:
- Track 1: Setting up of a state-wide core optical fibre network and providing connectivity to 30,000+ government institutions.
- Track 2: Provide free internet to economically backward families and subsidized internet for others by leveraging KFON Infrastructure
Benefits of KFON
KFON will complement the existing telecom ecosystem in the state and will act as the perfect catalyst positioning Kerala as a Gigabit Economy. The following are some of the multiple benefits to be realized across the board.
- Bridge the digital divide by making internet access a basic right to citizens and enable the state government’s vision to provide free internet access to economically backward households.
- Deliver e-Governance to citizens through TSPs/ISPs/Cable operators by leveraging this network.
- Provide affordable and better broadband connectivity to households by the TSPs/ISPs/Cable operators due to a competitive market by leveraging this network.
- Boose economic growth by providing digital infrastructure support for local enterprises and SMEs and promoting Electronics and IT industry.
Human capital development
- Deliver remote education
- Create job opportunities
- Enhance skills
- Prove remote healthcare access
- Smart cities/ smart grids
- Transportation management
- Community Connect – Smart Village
- Sharing information and best practices (financial services, e-governance, agricultural techniques)
- Entertainment (IPTV, OTT, etc.)
- Creating connected communities (researchers, product development, anytime anywhere/ anytime collaboration)