Kerala State Electricity Board, the public sector power distribution monopoly that is used by major broadband operators to hang their cables, has decided to start a fiber-to-the-home service on its own.
The service, to be called K Fone, will also include a free-tier, which will come with limited data allowance and will be provided to those with ‘below poverty line’ ration cards.
Those who need more data, or do not have BPL cards, can go for regular plans.
KSEB plans to start the service in six months, and it will compete with the upcoming Jio Fiber service from India’s largest telecom operator.
The government firm hopes to rapidly roll out the fiber internet service in state, leveraging its power distribution infrastructure that reaches each and every household in the state.
KSEB plans to make internet available on demand across the state soon after kicking off the service by March.
To provide fiber internet connections, the corporation will have to first get all its sub-stations connected to a high-speed fiber network. It has already connected all the 220,000 volt substations, while work to connect 110,000 volt and 66,000 volt substations are progressing.
Interestingly, most of the fiber broadband providers in the state, such as Asianet Satellite Communications and Kerala Vision, use KSEB’s electricity poles to support their fiber cables, for which they pay a monthly rental.
Despite rosy projections of giving ‘on demand’ fiber internet connections anywhere in Kerala, KSEB is unlikely to be able to do so at least for another five years due to the expenditure involved in fiberizing each and every electricity pole in the state.
KSEB is currently making huge losses. While the fiber internet service could potentially rescue it from its financial woes in the medium to long term, the service requires heavy investment in cables, as well as routers.
One of the key challenges will be technical know-how. Hardly any of KSEB’s employees are trained in installing or troubleshooting fiber optic broadband services.
However, another state government department, Kerala IT Mission, has promised to help out by training KSEB employees and providing other know-how for the launch.
Central government’s PM Skill Development Mission is also training hundreds of youth in fiber optic technologies every month.
KSIT Mission will also help in marketing K Fone services and also possibly in installing and managing the billing and provisioning software for the service. KSITM has already implemented a free WiFi scheme called K-Fi.
Still, the biggest challenge will be funds. Hardened fiber optic cable, which can be slung on power poles, costs around Rs 20 per meter.
KSEB plans to give its employees the option of being ‘agents’ for the new fiber service, and will also give a role for its employees in financing the roll-out. This is expected to lower the financial burden on the company.
Funding the cost of the cable and routers is also a challenge for private fiber broadband providers. Smaller fiber internet providers, including cable operators under Kerala Vision banner, give customers the option of paying for the cost of extra cable required if their house is not already passed by a lit cable.
However, players like Asianet Cable do not give such an option in case a home is outside ‘feasibility area’.
Private players also charge Rs 3,000 per connection as installation fees to recover part of the cost of the fiber modem.
Despite years of roll-out, only an estimated 10% of the state’s homes are passed by fiber cable as yet — mostly from Asianet Cable and Kerala Vision associates and mostly confined to the big cities.
Kerala will not be the first state to provide free fiber Internet services.
Andhra Pradesh State FiberNet Limited, a state government undertaking, already provides free Internet in the state.
It provides free broadband to anyone who purchases its cable TV service costing around Rs 175 per month.
However, the free fiber broadband plan offers just 15 GB of data per month. The same company also offers 400 GB of data for Rs 1,180, including taxes.
Meanwhile, Reliance Jio’s upcoming Fiber service too will offer 400 GB of data per month for 1,000 per month, but users have to subscribe to their annual plan to be eligible for the same.
The monthly plan of the same price comes with only 200 GB of data. Jio has, however, tied up with credit card and financing companies to convert annual plans into monthly plans using EMI schemes.
Central government-owned Railwire is also a major player in the Internet Service Provider business in Kerala, and is the upstream connectivity provider to hundreds of small fiber broadband providers in the state.