What India needs to do in satellite broadband?

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On the World Telecom Day, 2017, the Broadband India Forum hosted the seminar, “Innovations, Technology & Satcom for Big Data, Broadband and Digital India”, in New Delhi.

Let’s start by looking at the primary growth drivers of communication satellites. According to TV Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum (BIF), as of Dec. 31, 2015, there were 1,381 total operational satellites, globally.

India has totally 124 operational satellites, which is only 9 percent of the global satellite population. India, which is the target focus of ‘The next Billion in Broadband has less than 5 percent of the total communication satellites globally (33, compared to ~700 globally). Out of 33 satellites, only 28 are dedicated communication satellites (and predominantly in the less-efficient C and Ku bands).

All this puts India far below the global norms on satellite communications. India needs large private investment to augment satellite capacity for a Digital India.

The top 10 economies use broadband from communication satellites. There are millions of subscribers in USA, Canada, West Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, etc. Satellite broadband is delivering 50Mbps speeds with today’s technology. Private satellite companies are set to deliver 1Gbps in near future.
(L to R): TV Ramachandran, president of BIF, Mrs. Aruna Sundarajan,  Secretary, MeitY and DoT, Shyamal Ghosh, Chairman emeritus, BIF, N Sivasailam, Addl. Secretary, Telecom, Dept. of Telecom, and Anil Prakash, secretary general, BIF.

Ubiquitous satellite broadband 
Satellite broadband is ubiquitous. It eliminates ROW issues which plague wired buildouts. It is available everywhere, even on planes, ships, trains and in homes and villages.

As per ITU, India ranks 131 out of 155 globally on fixed broadband penetration and at 155 out of 187 countries for mobile broadband. It has a huge urban/rural digital divide.
Rural broadband is at only 6 percent against urban broadband at 50 percent.

Terrestrial broadband technologies involve difficult rollout, prohibitive costs and long timeframes to deploy. Satellite broadband can be achieved almost on tap. The use of satellite for broadband becomes absolutely imperative.

India lagging behind in satellite broadband
All communication satellites in India belong only to ISRO. These are built on older, less efficient C and Ku-band technologies. Globally, private companies are investing in communication satellites.

Government and agencies are focusing on space exploration, new space technology, military and defence applications. Commercial communications have been opened to open markets. Built with new Ka-band technology is enabling speeds of up to 100Mbps/1 Gbps.

About $5 billion+ of investment has been committed to communication satellites
globally from Intelsat, Inmarsat, ViaSat, Hughes, SpaceX, OneWeb. India has currently no private investment in communication satellites.

Globally, satcom is competitive to terrestrial technologies for rural and remote areas. However, it lags behind in India due to inadequate capacity /availability, lack of use of new innovations and technologies, as well as higher costs. In India, costs of satellite broadband are much higher than that in the US.

Bringing costs on par with global norms
What can be done to reduce the costs and bring it on par with global norms? Satcoms can offer HTS with Ka-band, so that the cost/Gb could reduce by a factor of 7 along with multiple-fold increase in capacity. There should be relaxation of outdated technical specifications. There is a need to free up the market and allow open competition between international and domestic satellite operators.

There should be an increase in the term period of the contract between the satellite
operators and service providers from three years to at least 10-15 years to enjoy economies of scale. Future new applications and new markets would require at least 100x more capacity than current applications.

What India should do?
So, what does India needs to do? First, commercial communications through satellite needs to be maximised for Digital India and for bridging rural-digital divide. There is a need to facilitate private investment and manufacture in communication satellites. India also need s a direct investment potential of $2 billion+.

There is a need to leverage the expert institutions like DoT and TRAI for managing policies and implementation of the same , as in the case of terrestrial broadband technologies. At least $2-5 billion FDI expected by 2025 if private investment is permitted.

The current policy permits liberalization. Open Sky policy has been there since 2000. However, procedures and processes have to facilitate implementation of Open Sky policy in letter and spirit. Private participation is needed to boost India’s satellite program.

There is a need to approve long-pending proposals/applications for setting up
domestic satellites. As of now, 17 years of liberalized Satcom could have added at least 400 million rural broadband customers today, besides connecting all 250,000
GPs (of Bharat Net ) and given a significant boost to the rural economy.

Use satellites for Internet
In his welcome address, Shyamal Ghosh, IAS (Retd), Emeritus chairman of Broadband India Forum, stated that: “Use of satellite for providing Internet services is perhaps the only way to cover the entire country. Its importance of meeting the objectives of Digital India and for providing ‘Broadband to All’ by 2020 cannot be overstated.”

Ghosh pointed out that while India, through the Department of Space and ISRO has made rapid strides in the areas of manufacture and launch of indigenous satellites and launch vehicles for satellites, we have a long way to go to meet the communication requirements of our country in an affordable, always available and accessible-to-all manner. While the global satellite industry is pegged at around 600 communication satellites, India has only a handful of them – all of which belong to ISRO.

BIF warmly congratulated ISRO for yet another feather in its resplendent cap, and celebrating the launch of the GSAT-9. It is a superb testimony to ISRO’s capabilities in satellite technology.