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Orbiting progress – Satellite communications revolutionizing India’s future

India’s tryst with satellite technology started many decades back and this is not a story of mere connectivity; it is a narrative of empowerment of people and enterprises, a saga where the orbiting sentinels above catalyze the nation’s progress in multifaceted dimensions. As we embark on an exploration of the orbiting progress shaping India’s destiny, we encounter a technological dawn that touches lives, transforms landscapes, and propels the nation into an era where innovation knows no bounds. The role of satellite communications has become increasingly pivotal, especially in a nation as diverse and dynamic as India. Satellite technology emerges as a catalyst, propelling India into an unprecedented era of progress.

Genesis of the satellite communication industry
How did it all start
India liberalized the telecommunications sector in the mid-nineties, which permitted private players to provide basic local and long-distance data and voice telephony services, using terrestrial networks, cellular services, paging services, and VSAT (very small aperture terminals) satellite, based non-terrestrial communication services. VSAT describes a satellite terminal that facilitates both one-way and two-way communications. With a small dish size ranging from 1.8 m to 2.4 m to 3.8 m, VSAT leverages both narrow- and wide-band frequencies to support a wide range of services, including access to internet, LAN, and WAN with support for voice, data, and conferencing applications, among others.

In 1996, during the early days of my career, I had joined Telstra V-Comm a joint venture of Telstra Corp, Australia, and VSNL (currently Tata Communications Ltd.), which had the license to provide single-hop SCPC (single channel per carrier) – DAMA (demand access multiple access) and PAMA (permanent access multiple access) and based VSAT services to enterprises. They later also started to offer double-hop TDM (time division multiplex) – TDMA (time division multiple access) services as well. The copper-based terrestrial networks during the early nineties were very expensive, coverage was limited and was extremely unreliable. Fiber connectivity was almost non-existent with extremely limited coverage and for enterprises that had offices and factories spread across the length and breadth of India, including Tier-II and Tier-III cities, and in rural hinterlands, VSAT connectivity was a blessing in disguise. The key players in the VSAT industry operating then were Hughes Escorts, a market leader by then, Comsat Max, Bharti-BT, HCL Comnet, HFCL, and a few others. I vividly remember carrying compasses, tapes, etc., to do site surveys at sites including rooftops to figure out the exact location where a VSAT had to be installed as it needed a clear path to the satellite with no obstructions whatsoever. I had pretty much traversed the length and breadth of India installing these VSATs and the supporting indoor satellite modem indoor units at many global MNC and Indian enterprise locations, including Ford India in Maraimalainagar, close to Chennai, P&G, Pepsi, Mahanadi Coal Fields, etc. Those experiences will always remain etched in my memory and it gave me immense satisfaction and fulfilment when VSAT implementations were successfully completed, and to hear positive feedback from customers. Even though VSAT terminals used to cost anywhere from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per terminal and satellite bandwidth was expensive (e.g., a 64-kbps annual subscription link charges were approximately Rs 10 lakh), the economics were compelling since leased line tariffs in mid-nineties were very expensive and, to compound it, were very unreliable. When TRAI reduced terrestrial leased line tariffs significantly in 1999 to around Rs 92,000 per annum, that had an impact on the growth of the industry. There were also data speed restrictions and other regulatory barriers that had a minor impact then. Notwithstanding these challenges, the need for VSAT services for specific niche use cases continued to find traction., especially large public sector banks deployed VSATs to connect ATMs spread across India, some large Indian PSUs continued to deploy VSATs at remote locations, high-speed maritime connections, military communications, direct-to-home satellite cable services, etc.

Satellite communication services impact areas
Revolutionizing agriculture
In the agrarian heartland of India, satellites have metamorphosed into silent custodians of crop health. Precision agriculture, powered by satellite data on soil moisture, weather patterns, and crop health, is ushering in a green revolution of unprecedented efficiency. Farmers, armed with real-time information, make informed decisions, optimizing crop yields and mitigating risks. The success stories of farmers leveraging satellite technology underscore its transformative potential in revitalizing India’s agricultural landscape.

Enhancing disaster management
India, with its vulnerability to natural disasters, has found an ally in satellites when nature unleashes its fury. From cyclone tracking to flood monitoring, satellite-based early warning systems have become indispensable in disaster management. The agility and accuracy afforded by satellite technology play a crucial role in swift response and recovery efforts, exemplified by instances, such as the successful deployment of satellites in the aftermath of flood situations in a few states in India, showcasing the resilience and adaptability of satellite technology in crisis situations.

Telemedicine and education
In the hinterlands, where access to healthcare and education is often a distant dream, satellites bridge the gap. Telemedicine initiatives leverage satellite connectivity to provide medical consultations to remote areas, bringing healthcare within reach. Similarly, satellite-enabled educational programs beam knowledge into the most inaccessible corners, empowering communities with the transformative force of education. These initiatives not only heal and educate but also illustrate how satellites can be the catalysts for socio-economic change.

Space exploration and research
Beyond the confines of Earth, India’s strides in space exploration have captured the world’s attention. Satellite launches, interplanetary missions, and scientific research conducted from space are emblematic of India’s prowess in the extraterrestrial domain. Satellites, as instruments of exploration, extend our understanding of the cosmos while contributing to advancements in science and technology on Earth, positioning India as a frontrunner in the global space race.

The business case for VSAT services plays a significant role for a broad range of applications. Delivering high-speed broadband connection in rural areas can be a challenge as a fiber cable network would be very impractical from technical and cost perspective as it cannot be stretched and will require re-amplification after every 40 to 60 miles. Fiber networks are expensive and require concrete deployment planning and extra budget and workforce for installation. This is where VSAT can bridge this connection barrier as it can directly transfer and receive data via satellites, eliminating the considerable cost and complexity of fiber installation. The VSAT hardware – the outdoor satellite terminal and the indoor unit far more cost-friendly as compared to the past and with the deployment of low earth orbit, spot-beam, and high throughput satellites, the satellite bandwidth costs have decreased significantly and we have seen significant reduction in satellite bandwidth cost as well over the last few years. Some of the key players operating in the VSAT space targeting the enterprise segment in India include Hughes Communications India, which still remains the market leader, Airtel, HCL Comnet, and NELCO part of the Tata group.

Release of the new Spacecom policy to propel growth of India’s satellite communication capabilities
In October 2020, the Department of Space released the draft Space-Based Communication Policy of India – 2020 for public consultation for all relevant stakeholders to share their inputs. The new Spacecom policy was an attempt to bring private participation and investments in the sector, strengthen India’s satellite communication capabilities, and align it with unprecedented growth in technology.

Some of the key objectives of the new Spacecom Policy was to usher in new-age satellite technologies and also provide for Indian entities to apply for permissions for the following:

  • The operation of satellites in (non-geostationary orbits) NGSOs, which will allow communications and services provided using LEO (low earth orbit) and MEO (medium earth orbit) satellites.
  • The use of non-Indian orbital resources, such as foreign satellites and orbital resources.
  • Establishment of ground control segments.

As per the new Indian Space Policy, which was eventually made public on Thursday, April 20, 2023, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) shall transition out from manufacturing operational space systems and focus its energies on R&D in advanced technologies. The policy also permits non-government entities (NGEs) to offer national and international space-based communication services, through self-owned, procured, or leased geostationary orbit (GSO) and non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) satellite systems. The new policy also encourages NGEs to set up, operate, and manage ground facilities for space objects operations, which are telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) earth stations and satellite control centers (SCCs). Industry leaders from across India welcomed the policy and described it as a forward looking one that will position India strongly and launch the Indian space sector into the 21st century. The leaders opined that the policy will be a catalyst for development of a robust, innovative, and globally competitive space ecosystem in India.

Satellite communication service has a huge potential market in India, and its size can touch USD 600 billion in the coming years. While 2023 was very positive in terms of satellite communication, there are still challenges that need to be addressed. There is still a need for a single-window clearance and the need to provision a regulator for the NTN (non-terrestrial network) integration.

Looking ahead to 2024, the satellite communication industry is poised for a significant transformation, triggered by an array of innovations that promise to reshape the way we communicate and explore the majestic cosmos. In this ever-evolving industry, satellites are no longer confined to being just beacons in the sky; they are the catalysts driving global connectivity taking coverage to the remotest parts of the earth, space exploration, weather monitoring, and beyond. The year 2024 promises a celestial banquet of advancements that will redefine the satellite industry’s role in our hyper-connected world. These trends will have profound implications, not just for the aerospace industry but also for the society at large. They will influence how we communicate and collaborate, navigate through cities and towns, predict weather conditions, closely monitor the environment, and even explore outer space. Given these trends, it is no surprise that we see Industry behemoths like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos playing in this space and investing billions of dollars to capitalize on this massive opportunity to provide satellite broadband internet access to enterprise as well as home users. Not to be left behind, large Indian conglomerates like Reliance Industries through their joint venture with SES as well as Bharti Airtel’s venture OneWeb are also likely to offer satellite broadband internet service from 2024. This will only mean good news for consumers who will now have an alternate connectivity option for high-speed and reliable internet access. From bridging the digital divide to advancing scientific discovery, the satellite industry is poised to touch nearly every facet of our lives in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend.

This article is authored by Sunil David, Digital Technology Consultant; Ex-Regional Director (IoT)-AT&T; Co-Chair of Digital Comm. Group of IET Future Tech Panel; and CII National AI Forum Member. Views expressed are personal.

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