With absolutely no fanfare, a path-breaking and historic measure appears to be unfolding in India’s space satellite sector. A highly strategic field, many are already aware that India’s Space Agency, Isro, is doing the nation immeasurably proud with its accomplishments in the space sector. However, what most are probably unaware of is that this premier government agency has started marching forward to accommodate private sector players to accelerate the national space programme. For the first time, Isro has engaged a private consortium led by Alpha Design Technologies, Bengaluru to manufacture two full satellites to deploy for India’s navigation system. This is indeed a great beginning and while the department of space and Isro need to be lauded for this initiative, we need to concurrently see it as the commencement of a long journey.
It was only a few months ago that AS Kiran Kumar, chairman of Isro, pointed out that India’s space capacity of 34 working commercial communications satellites is barely half of what the country needs and is, therefore, severely constrained for meeting the ever-increasing demands from over 60 central departments, the state governments and thousands of private sector companies and millions of consumers. It was then that he exhorted domestic industry to come forward and help augment significantly the manufacture and launch of satellites. Worldwide the roles of manufacturing and operations have been separated since long. Premier national space agencies, like NASA, do not engage in commercial manufacture of communications satellites or leasing transponders. They are engaged in deep space exploration, like NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission, OSIRIS Rex. Much like our own missions—Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan.
Before going further, one must appreciate that against our base of only 34 working satellites, few of which are commercial communications satellites, globally, by end 2015, there were nearly 1,400 operational satellites for different types of applications. Thus, our 34 satellites represent hardly 2.5% of the global satellite base, while for the size of our sub-continent and massive population of 1.3 billion, we should be having several fold the number of satellites. This is further accentuated by the exploding data demand due to 4G, IoT, Digital India, Smart Cities and, of course, the impending arrival of 5G. It is too unrealistic to expect that the government can cope with this avalanche of a requirement without the active involvement and cooperation of the private sector.
This is understandably the basis of the powerful exhortation by chairman and it is clear that India expects the private sector players to jump in and do their duty to help realise Digital India through the important role of Satcom. The wonderful news is that, rather than need a prodding, the satellite private players, fully “able and willing”, like Charles Dickens’ Barkis, have been eagerly waiting in the wings since several years now to be pressed into action for the national cause. In fact, many would be unaware that private sector’s participation in satellite manufacture and launch, has been clearly envisaged in the policy ever since 2000, ie, for more than 15 years now! This is now being facilitated and operationalised by the visionary measures of Isro’s chairman.
This move is consistent with wanting investments into the country and it’s a complete no risk approach for the government. The pending private investment and expected new applications for operating private commercial communication satellites could bring in $3-5 billion worth of FDI into the country. Isro has remarkable launch capabilities and the privately-manufactured satellites could leverage its expertise in launching, and also help improve the latter’s capacity utilisation. Not only this, the impetus to Satcom could lead to a much larger volume of modems and ground terminals being required and, just as what has happened in mobile phone manufacture in India, there could be a boom in the take-up of domestic manufacture of equipment and components for Satcom. Needless to add this will create jobs and provide much needed affordable broadband in the unserved and underserved regions of the country. This would jell with the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Design in India’ initiatives of the government.
India is second only to China as regards the size of its internet user base. It also has one of the busiest routes of trains as well as—both domestic and international. While broadband on trains can be provided by terrestrial communication as well, due to the vastness and diversity of India and the extensive railway network, satellite communication is the only way to provide seamless broadband connectivity for railways in India. There are 23 million passengers daily on board trains. India also has the highest domestic air passenger growth in 2016—26.6%, which is double that of China. As many as 100 million passengers flew in domestic flights in 2016—2,75,000 passengers a day.
It also has big ambitions in maritime communications and inland waterways. Private sector can help provide earliest internet connectivity in all these areas. The best of technologies and expertise are readily available with them. India has the sixth largest car industry globally. Hence, connected cars’ software updates and emergency services could result in development and manufacturing of satellite solutions by the private player experts. Yes, the time for India’s big play, deploying satellite communications for Digital India and other key initiatives for consumer benefit, has now come, thanks to the department of space and Isro’s trailblazer actions for involving the private sector in satellite operation.