In mobile telephony, India has been the envy of many countries. While analogue mobile telephony was well-developed and operational in many countries including our neighbouring ones since the mid-1980s, India had no mobile telephony. However, when GSM digital telephony was commercialised even in Europe only in 1993, India, with remarkable foresight, took a giant leap to mandate GSM in its first mobile telephony licences in 1994 and 1995. The rest is history. In the 20 years since, despite many trials and tribulations on the way, we have become the world’s second largest mobile market and probably the fastest growing, with intense competition and lowest user tariffs. Truly a success story.
However, for an inclusive Digital India, we have to deliver connectivity and broadband to the remote and difficult-to-access parts of the country, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, the Northeast, Chhattisgarh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, and rural hinterland and Naxalite areas in various states. It is estimated that there are 38,000 gram panchayats which fall into this category. Year after year, we are failing in our targets of connecting the unconnected because of the formidable challenges in rolling out expensive digital networks in remote parts. In a sense, the digital divide between urban and rural India is actually widening—the ‘digital haves’ are getting more while the ‘digital have-nots’ remain excluded.
But we do not need to despair since well-developed and effective satellite communication solutions have been available for years and are, literally, low-hanging fruit, almost begging to be utilised. And, here we are not talking of any new or untried technology.
The revolutionary idea of using an object in space to reflect signals for communication was established as early as 1951, by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, when it used the Moon to set up a communication link between Washington and Hawaii. Less than two decades later, in 1965, the first commercial Geostationary Satellite Orbit (GSO) provided video (TV) and voice telephony to their customers. Disappointingly, even five decades later, we in India have taken not taken even baby steps towards reforms and liberalisation of this mission-critical segment.
In satellite communications, we are today in the same state as was terrestrial voice telephony in the country in the 1990s. Telecom being considered a natural monopoly, there was no effective National Telecom Policy and the roles of policy-maker and licensor, regulator and operator were all fused into a single entity. Private players were invited to this sector to operate mobile telecommunications. But it was, expectedly, a recipe for disaster until the epoch-making reforms happened through the constitution of an independent regulator, Trai, the issuance of the New Telecom Policy 1999, and the corporatisation and separation of the public operator by creating BSNL.
However, in the case of satellite communications, not only is there a monopoly of Antrix/ISRO, but effectively just like in the field of telecom earlier, the policy-making, licensing and regulatory roles are combined in this entity. Thus, none of the lessons learnt in mobile telecommunications has been applied. Hence, there is no competition, underutilised capacity, inefficient operations and exorbitant prices. For example, whereas mobile data communication and broadband user tariffs are similar (on a purchasing power parity basis) between the US and India, fixed broadband is not more than about six times expensive in India than in the US. In the case of satellite communications, Indian data tariffs are nearly 300 times costlier than in the US.
One might think that the exorbitant prices of satellite communications in India is probably due to inadequate satellite capacity over the country. That is not so. Actually, all major international satellite operators have a footprint over India. It is estimated that 190 transponders with a capacity of 36 MHz each are available. That adds up to 6.8 GHz of satellite bandwidth. Applying the usual 1:2 conversion, this effectively means about 14 Gbps bandwidth. Assuming only 75% of this is deployed for BharatNet, we would still have 10 Gbps capacity. This huge capacity is going waste. It amounts to idle capacity that is 3-4 times the requirement of 40 transponders for the initial and urgent Digital India requirement. And all this without even including the ISRO/Antrix capacity of 24 Ku-band transponders, each of 36 Mhz—i.e. about 0.9 GHz.
It is noteworthy that the Australian government, in its National Broadband Network (NBN), uses satellite bandwidth to cover remote and difficult-to-reach locations, which constitute about 3% of their total coverage. At such locations, they deliver 6 Mbps initially, augmenting 12 Mbps subsequently. This is a must-have solution for our vast hinterland, where even the maintenance of fibre-optic connectivity is challenging. Also, we need to consider satellite bandwidth as a backup to fibre downtime.
The lessons from international satellite communication price comparison, the story of Indian mobile reforms, the fact of huge idle capacity over Indian skies and NBN … all show that we need to liberate satellite communications from the monopolistic controls exercised by ISRO/Antrix. In fact, policy-maker/licensor, regulator and public operator need to be separated. Nothing will then be able to stop the flood of satellite communication benefits of universal broadband coverage and affordable tariffs from flowing to the unconnected citizens of India.
So, what are the key elements of this process?
* The Department of Space, the policy-making and licensing agency, must be separated from the operator, Antrix, as well as from the research unit ISRO.
* All regulatory functions should be vested in the available independent techno-economic authority, Trai.
* A forward-looking satcom policy should be formulated and announced which should lay the essential foundation of fair competition and level-playing field for all players, public (Antrix) as well as private.
* Permit direct bandwidth negotiations with international operators by the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) as well as private operators, without the intervention of Antrix or the Department of Space.
* Like in Australia, BBNL should set up its own National Satellite Network through its High Throughput Satellite (HTS) which will deliver bandwidth of 4-8 Mbps (per site service) in the first phase, subsequently scalable to over 30-100 Mbps to the gram panchayats in a cost-effective manner. It is estimated that a Ka-band HTS satellite could cater for this pan-India connectivity. Just a small part of the government funding for BharatNet and Digital India would amply take care of the National Satellite Network requirement.
* Open up Ka-band operations in India and HTS satellites, as well as use of HTS terminals.
* Lay down clear guidelines for security compliance by foreign satellites.
* Simplify the current extremely-cumbersome and time-consuming Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocation (SACFA) clearance to enable speedier roll-out to GPs.
* Permit the use of Non Geostationary Orbital (NGSO) satellites.
With right actions for satellite communication liberalisation and deployment, experts are confident that the first phase of broadband implementation is possible for all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in just 12-18 months.
The author is president, Broadband India Forum, and honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering & Technology, London. Views are personal