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Shivaji Chatterjee
SVP – Networks Business
Hughes Communications India Private Limited

Exclusive Interview

Your vision on how the VSAT and broadband satellite market will pan out in the Indian market over the next couple of years.

We are excited about the future of the VSAT market in India. Satellite broadband has continuously shown its ever-evolving value over the years across different industries and applications. The current and potential use cases of satellite communication point to a huge demand of the sector and its proven ability to drive socio-economic benefits in the country.

Today, market estimates suggest that satcom applications in India will largely move toward broadband, cellular backhaul, and enterprise services. In addition, we expect newer areas like community Wi-Fi, and aero- and maritime-mobility services to be a big piece of the market going forward. The government’s recent decision to issue FMC licenses has opened up a new set of opportunities for VSAT operators, especially in the mobility sector for aviation and maritime connectivity, with land mobility soon to follow.

Having said this, however, one must also remember that in the case of India, there is a huge cost difference in satellite bandwidth between India and what is provided in most parts of the world. The cost of satellite bandwidth in India is significantly higher. This is in stark contrast to India’s prices for cellular data and voice, where our rates are the lowest in the world. The reason for this is not the inefficiency of satellite technology, which has advanced very significantly in recent years. The reason is that due to regulatory controls, we have not been able to gain access to the low-cost transponders and advanced HTS satellites that cover India, because we have not implemented the Open Sky policy, which the TRAI too has been advocating for many years now. There is, therefore, a need to implement the Open Sky policy both in letter and spirit. India needs to be technology-agnostic, and also needs to embrace technologies that are robust, frugal, scalable, and ubiquitous to overcome current terrestrial challenges, such as constraints with the right-of-way approach, being faced in the laying of fiber.

Given the constraints in network demand and the challenges to connect rural and remote areas using terrestrial technologies, VSAT technologies will play a crucial role in improving internet penetration across rural areas with solutions including community Wi-fi.

Your strategy for the next couple of years.

We are very excited about 2020 way forward, with our business expanding in multiple directions. We have adopted a managed-services approach, combining the best of enterprise satellite, wireless, and terrestrial technologies to offer unique, differentiated solutions to enterprises in the country.

The success of our Jupiter HTS technology in India – already connecting over 30,000 locations in India – has shown the potential of state-of-the-art satellite systems in serving the needs of the enterprise and the government. The government is taking multiple initiatives in rural connectivity and transformational projects, and Hughes and the Jupiter technology is at the forefront in execution of the government’s strategy on the ground and in the air!

Our unique HughesON wireless solution, built around the best of 4G networks available around the country, provides a very strong, quick-to-deploy, and managed solution for enterprises – and a very viable and easy alternative and complement to MPLS solutions, which hitherto has been the main connectivity solution for enterprises in India. With speeds of over 4 Mbps, we have deployed over 15,000 such links in the last 2 years itself.

Lastly, built around the urban fiber infrastructure is our newly launched SD-WAN high-speed service, which provides the latest network technologies with low-latency, high-speed fiber and broadband infrastructure to service the high bandwidth needs of the larger offices of corporates and retail in a manner that has not been experienced in India thus far.

So, our strategy is really to use the mix of terrestrial, wireless, and satellite technologies to cater to the enterprise and the government needs across urban and rural India – in a unique manner that meets specific requirements in a cost-effective and inclusive manner.

Your plans for launching massive geostationary satellites in 2020.

Hughes has been following a vertically integrated strategy for consumer broadband on satellite by launching our own satellites or partnering in satellite capacities. This has already happened in North America, South America, Middle-east Asia, and Africa. So, we plan to pursue this approach in India too. We have filed an application with the government regulatory authorities to permit us to launch and operate an Indian satellite in line with the laws of the land in India. We do hope for an approval very soon as it has been over 5 years since our application.

The projects HCIL executed in 2019, and the order book for 2020.

Hughes undertook a variety of diverse and exciting projects in 2019. One of the foremost projects done was the retail automation of over 20,000 petrol retail outlets across the country for IOCL, BPCL, HPCL, Nayara, and Shell. The other key project being done now is for BharatNet, where we are connecting around 5000 gram panchayats with high-speed satellite backhaul using our path-breaking Jupiter technology. We completed different system-integration projects for BSNL in upgrading the satellite capacities in Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshadweep Islands to 2+ Gbps bandwidth.

For NABARD, which runs a network connecting over 6000 scheduled and co-operative banks in India, we set up a network using high-speed VSAT and HughesON 4G connectivity to provide a robust network for rural banking across over 50 different banks.

Most recently, we set up an e-learning network for the Uttarakhand Government, connecting 500 government schools connected to four studios in Dehradun, using the Jupiter technology, which was inaugurated by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, and is being adopted very actively already in primary education across the state.

We have a very strong order book entering into 2020 and look forward to continuing the 2019 growth story into the new year, whilst adding many new projects lined up for 2020.

Hughes is the largest satellite ISP in the Americas. What is its status in the Indian market?

Our vertically integrated strategy, coupled with our vision of broadband satellite services, has propelled Hughes to a global-leadership position in the Americas for satellite broadband to consumers, where we have close to 1.5 million consumers connected on the HughesNet satellite broadband service.

In India, whilst we have been extremely successful in the enterprise and the government verticals in terms of providing managed services and satellite solutions, the satellite broadband market is yet to take off. The prime reason is the lack of HTS capacity available commercially to the VSAT service providers like us to provide the right kind of service and pricing as per the expectation of the Indian consumers and the market. With the advent of low-cost 4G services, the expectation of Indian consumers is a high-speed and cost-effective satellite broadband solution too.

We expect that in the next 2  years, very-high-throughput satellite services as well as low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites will be available – which will enable us to fulfill our vision and mission in India of high-speed and low-cost satellite broadband to the consumers – directly and through shared infrastructure like 4G/5G and Wi-Fi over satellite.

Please comment on the Indian scenario in the backdrop that Hughes is aggressive among carrier-managed SD-WAN providers globally.

We are continuously working on expanding our enterprise offerings with managed services to address the growing needs of our enterprise customers. In a short span of time, Hughes has crossed over 15,000+ links with the HughesON suite of services. We have some of the biggest names from food retail, telecom, banks, and franchise retail using HughesON solutions. We are seeing significant interest in our managed-services solutions and we are confident of expanding the managed-services space.

Please comment on the progress with the contract to supply the solution for broadband satellite services to the Indian Navy.

This project is under execution and is currently about 75 percent complete. The focus is on providing connectivity to the strategic locations in the islands, and to offer mobile satcom coverage across various locations in the mainland. We expect this project to go live operationally within the next six months.

What is the size of the total addressable cellular backhaul-solutions market in India?

The global mobile and wireless-backhaul market size is estimated to grow from USD 17.85 billion in 2015 to USD 33.15 billion by 2020, at an estimated CAGR of 13.18 percent.

The current size of the cellular-backhaul market in India is about 500+ links, and bandwidth capacity of around 3 Gbps. The cellular service providers that have deployed satellite backhaul include BSNL, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, and Vodafone-Idea. Hughes has provided solutions to multiple telcos for 2G, 3G, and 4G connectivity in India.

HCIL has been authorized to provide in-flight connectivity and high-quality broadband services to Indian and foreign airlines and shipping companies operating within Indian territory. What has been the progress?

We are moving very quickly. I can say there has been tremendous interest as Hughes was the first one to receive the flight and maritime connectivity license in India. We have set up the requisite infrastructure for both maritime as well as aero services in India, and have also obtained the regulatory operating approvals for the same. We are working very closely with multiple aeronautical and maritime customers, and will have more announcements to make shortly.

What are the opportunities you see for the satellite industry while bringing 5G to India?

The most obvious application of satellite communication in the 5G delivery architecture is in the backhaul segment of the network. A more futuristic usage scenario of the satellite is when it is deployed in the access network, communicating directly to the user terminal, possibly LEO satellites with some embedded facilities – like an LTE-embedded VSAT terminal. We also see the use of enhanced mobile broadband services for VSAT in conjunction with community Wi-Fi services. Lastly, for IoT-like applications for MMTC via satellite, we expect thin-route satellite applications on S-band to play a key role here. The domestic applications of satellite communication offer ample opportunities that can significantly transform the digital potential of the country.

Anything else you may like to add.

Multiple studies have shown how the Indian government’s Digital India initiative can benefit from satellite broadband. Remote, unconnected areas that struggle with basic needs, such as electricity, are prime candidates for satellite intervention, apart from mountainous and other inhospitable terrain, where satellite broadband scores over its terrestrial counterpart in terms of techno-economic feasibility. The present Satcom policy in India needs to evolve further in light of the emerging requirements led by 5G and IoT, among other developments.

The policy would need to create a happy balance between autonomy, security, and demand for services and a calibrated approach would be required to enable this and, therefore, bridge the communication deficit. A future roadmap to enable this call for serious engagement from all stakeholders could create an ecosystem for significant investments.

Satellite communication needs further mainstreaming across India to help reach our Digital India mission goals – specifically to bolster terrestrial technologies, such as fiber and mobile towers and make them ready for the advent of 5G. To this end, India’s satcom policy should also allow for a multiplicity of satcom technologies, including new spectrum re-use, high-throughput satellites, as well as LEO and MEO satellite constellations to provide ubiquitous, high-speed broadband access across every corner of India. 

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