354 Uncovered Villages Scheme is the pilot project approved by the Digital Communications Commission (DCC) to provide mobile connectivity in uncovered areas of Ladakh and Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir, border areas, and other priority areas based on a technology-neutral outcome-based approach. It aims to provide mobile coverage to 354 uncovered villages across India by installation of 354 mobile towers at a cost of about Rs. 336 crore. An agreement has been signed between Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF) and Reliance Jio in 2020 . USOF is under the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communications.
USOF was created under Ministry of Communications in 2002 to ensure universal, non-discriminatory access to quality ICT (information and communications technology ) services at economically efficient prices to people in rural and remote areas . It is a non-lapsable fund, that is, the unspent amount in a financial year does not lapse and is accrued for next year’s expenditure. It has statutory support under the Indian Telegraph (Amendment ) Act,2003. According to the agreement, the USP (Reliance Jio) will provide mobile services by installing mobile towers in 354 Uncovered Villages. The Administrator (central government ), subject to USP performing all obligations on their part, has agreed to provide a subsidy.
USOF will be used to provide financial support for the provision of mobile coverage and telecom services in uncovered villages to be made available in the entire geographical range of the village area. The agreement is valid for 11 years and 3 months since the date of signing of the agreement unless revoked earlier. It covers villages across India. The maximum villages covered are in the states of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh ( 144), followed by Gujarat (70) and Himachal Pradesh(59). Other states covered are Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Several villages under the project come under critical border areas like Leh district of Ladakh, covering Nubra block, Kargil district. In Rajasthan, Barmer and Kutch, which share a border with Pakistan are covered. In Jammu and Kashmir, villages in Baramulla, Uri, Poonch, and Gurez districts are covered. Gurez valley in Jammu Kashmir is a border area heavily militarized.
The USP (Reliance Jio) according to the agreement will set up (supply, install, test and commission), maintain and manage the infrastructure sites, and provide mobile services in the 354 uncovered villages. It is also responsible for continued operation and maintenance of tower and infrastructure created for 10 years from the date of roll out of services. It has to be in compliance with the Department of Telecommunication Licenses and TRAI Regulations, as applicable. This is a significant agreement because usually projects undertaken in border areas of India are given to public sector companies that are controlled by the government due to national security issues. In the past, many such contracts have been given to state-run BSNL(Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited ) like improving mobile coverage in international border areas of Assam and installing mobile towers along the highly sensitive India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. But for this project a private company