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Not possible to fulfil broadband goals without satellite internet: DoT official

“The Prime Minister in his Independence Day celebration address gave the target of a 1,000 days to [get broadband to 600,000 Indian villages]. It’s not possible, seeing the terrain and geography of this country to reach all these villages through fibre and terrestrial micro-wave communications. There will be areas where they need to get connected through satellite communications,” said K Ramchand, Member (Technology) at the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). Ramchand made these remarks during a session at the Broadband India Forum’s India Satcom event (broadcast here). He added that the DoT would look into light touch regulation for the industry.

His remarks reflect the government warming up towards satellite broadband as a shortcut to getting broadband to places where laying fibre is too expensive; billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which runs a constellation of internet-providing satellites, urged the government recently to move in that direction. This also comes after Indian Space Research Organisation recently put out a draft space communications policy that encourages greater private participation.

‘Satellite not just for rural areas’

Pranav Roach, President of Hughes Network Systems India, a major player in India’s satellite communications industry, complained that the industry hadn’t seen the kind of generational growth that terrestrial mobile networks had, and expressed optimism about recent technological advancements that enabled high-speed internet to be carried over high-throughput and low-earth orbit satellites. For the moment, he said, satellite companies were working with their “hands tied behind their backs”.

“I hear frequently the insistence that satellite being a technology for remote and far-flung areas. I find it incredible that in today’s day and age, policymakers have to decide where what technology goes. In the way the technology is, and the way the access is, the per-bit prices for the bandwidth rates have come down hugely. So why should it be that it’s only for the villages, and not urban areas? There are urban areas which don’t have affordable broadband. So this insistence should go, and be left to operators and consumers for affordable access. Having said this, we are encouraged by the recent announcement of the government to open up the Indian space sector for private participation,” Roach said, adding that the time had come to reap the benefits of satellite communications.

DoT official’s remarkst

Here are K Ramchand’s remarks on satellite broadband from the Satcom India event:

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As we all know, satellite communications in India have been used quite extensively, especially in remote areas, where we cannot reach with terrestrial communications. We are building up the telecom infrastructure in the country so we can reach all the 600,000 villages in the country. The Prime Minister in his Independence Day celebration address gave the target of a 1000 days to reach all these villages. It’s not possible, seeing the terrain and geography of this country to reach all these villages through fibre and terrestrial microwave communications. There will be areas where they need to get connected through satellite communications. I am happy that the Broadband India Forum is organising this webinar on SatCom.

When we think of satellite, in our earlier communications space, we used to just think of voice communications or low-bitrate communications, or maybe reaching the homes for TV broadcast. But as the earlier speakers have pointed out, connectivity does not just mean voice, it means data. Voice may even come as a freebie or as an add-on product. But everybody needs connection to the internet world.

Satellite communications not only provide direct communication, they also serve as back-haul for terrestrial communications. We have requirement of satellite communication in the remotest areas, like the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands. Even though recently the former were connected through a submarine cable, we continue to have satellite connectivity as a backup.

With the advancement of technologies that the earlier speakers talked about, with low-earth orbit satellites coming in and in-flight communications, the scope of providing services is unlimited, and we hope that this technology will supplement the other technologies that will be available for providing communications to citizens.

As far as new technologies are concerned, 5G is already knocking on our doors; probably in the next calendar year we will be seeing the launch of 5G by some of the operators. Here, there is a need for cooperation and co-existence between various organisations which demand a lot of spectrum, and there’s a lot of competition.

5G technology can be deployed in the sub-gigahertz band or in the [unclear] band, or in the milli-metre band. We also can use E and V bands as backhaul. These are the spectrum bands which are used for International Mobile Telecommunications, and are the bands that will also be used for satellite communications for different purposes. There’s a need for cooperation and co-existence to have good use of spectrum and technology to reach the customer and provide services.

If the customer is not bothered with the spectrum or technology, they are only concerned with the quality of the service.

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It is our duty to see that there is cooperation between the ministries. Especially the Department of Telecommunications, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, and the Department of Defence, of course. We have to work together, come together, and ensure that spectrum is utilised the best way, whether it is satellite or terrestrial.

When we talk of satellite, the security issues also come into the picture. We have certain gateways installed by ISRO and private players in coordination with PSUs like BSNL. We have to take care of security issues also when we use this technology. I have taken the point on light touch regulation. Yes, it is good to have light touch regulation so that technology reaches the citizens, and we will work on it.

I wish the size of the terminus, the handsets with the users, for broadband users is reduced, so that they can be used extensively; especially by security agencies, people in the border areas, and people who are mobile.

— K Ramchand, Member (Technology), Department of Telecommunications

Quotes are lightly edited for clarity.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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