Satellite communications primarily caters to niche markets and applications, in addition to providing direct broadcasting services. It is extensively used in the banking and financial services industry in India, particularly to connect ATMs with banks. Banks often rely on very small aperture terminal (VSAT) networks for primary or backup connectivity as terrestrial last-mile connectivity is often erratic and gets worse as we move into the rural areas. Terrestrial backhaul becomes less cost-effective in remote areas. VSAT and satellite communication, on the other hand, have low implementation costs, high availability and flexible bandwidths. They are also easy to deploy.
Financial services and banking is not the only industry that can potentially benefit from satcom. In fact, the implementation of initiatives like Digital India, the Smart Cities Mission and BharatNet has widened the scope of satcom. A look at the emerging use cases of satcom in India…
According to Viasat, over 690 million rural Indians do not have broadband access. Setting up telecom towers in rural areas is an expensive proposition as they do not cover enough population to recover costs. Due to their inherent limitations, terrestrial networks are often unable to serve the connectivity needs of people in the deep rural pockets and the difficult-to-reach hilly terrains of India. This provides ample opportunity for satcom players to provide connectivity in this underserved market by establishing community Wi-Fi systems. Further, satcom is expected to play a key role in Phase II of the BharatNet project, which has increased the scope of the technology.
In recent years, there has been a surge in data traffic, largely driven by the large-scale uptake of high-bandwidth video services. This data explosion has created significant pressure on existing networks. This is where satellite communication can step in. Satellites have the ability to broadcast content to huge geographical areas, which makes it the most efficient method for broadband content delivery to end consumers. According to the Broadband India Forum, given the ease of network deployment, the fastest time-to-market, and the ability to provide the best user experience at the lowest costs, satcom multicasting and caching architecture can revolutionise the internet access capabilities of rural India by enabling offline browsing.
When disasters and natural calamities like tsunamis, earthquakes and floods hit cities, all terrestrial communication is cut off almost immediately. In such scenarios, satcom, which is a fail-safe option, can be used for restoring connectivity and re-establishing communication links for both disaster victims as well as those involved in emergency response efforts.
In 2017, UK-based satcom provider Inmarsat entered into an alliance with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to open an Indian global satellite phone service gateway for providing telephony services to public and private companies as well as individuals. According to BSNL, its satellite business is faring well. The company has around 4,500 satellite phone customers. While the defence sector, police personnel and disaster management agencies are the core takers of this service, hotel chains are also showing a keen interest in buying satellite phones. Encouraged by the growing demand, BSNL aims to sell as many as 10,000 satellite phones by March 31, 2019.
Telemedicine and teleducation
Satellite communication can play an enabling role in delivering telemedicine and teleducation services to the large unconnected population of India. There are many areas in the north-eastern regions that have almost negligible terrestrial connectivity, and no healthcare and educational institutions. People have to walk miles to access these facilities. The problem becomes more acute in the event of a medical emergency. In such a scenario, satcom can provide instant access to broadband services, thereby virtually connecting patients with medical experts and specialists. Similarly, satcom can be used to impart teleducation to the uneducated rural masses.
Smart cities constitute several smart solutions such as smart poles, integrated command and control centres, smart waste management systems, city surveillance systems and environment monitoring systems. Satcom can be highly useful in smart cities where in addition to serving the communications requirements, it can be used for environment monitoring, navigation and security.
Many countries have already started deploying satcom as a connectivity tool in their smart cities. In Italy, for example, a satellite navigation app has been implemented for the residents of Trieste that allows them to send and monitor requests in 11 categories to the city authorities. The system automatically prioritises issues based on the number of entries received and enables the municipality to solve these problems in less time. Further, in England, as per Exeter City Council estimates, the deployment of satellite-enabled systems in waste collection vehicles has generated £340,000 in capital savings and £470,000 in revenue savings.
However, satcom still has a long way to go to become a mainstream solution for smart cities in India. For this, the chipset ecosystem needs to evolve and prices need to come down significantly, according to industry experts.
The need to always stay connected is pushing governments the world over to allow in-flight connectivity. India is no different from its counterparts and has recently released the guidelines for providing in-flight connectivity in its territory. It is, however, not easy to address users’ demand for uninterrupted connection in the air as it is on land. This provides a huge market opportunity for satcom players. According to EuroConsult, the number of satellite broadband connected commercial aircraft globally is expected to increase from 5,200 in 2017 to 27,800 by 2027.
According to a report by the London School of Economics, in-flight connectivity will become a $130 billion market by 2035, contributing $30 billion to airline revenues. This revenue would come from upselling broadband access to customers, offering advertisers access to their target audience and providing e-commerce services.
Apart from this, satcom can be used to provide connectivity to other mobility industries such as maritime, which includes cruise ships, defence vessels and submarines. On land as well, a new use case seems to be emerging for satcom in the form of connected cars. The uptake of connected cars in India is expected to increase in the next couple of years. This is a huge opportunity in the making for satcom players.
The way forward
While satcom has immense potential in India, a supportive ecosystem is needed to realise this potential. The regulatory framework for satcom has to evolve in line with the transforming demand landscape of the industry. In this regard, the availability of spectrum in the Ka-band and Ku-band needs to be ensured and the price points of satellite bandwidth have to be reconsidered.
While satcom has manifold use cases, there seems to be an absence of business models around these applications. To encourage private players to incur a huge amount of investment in the development of satcom, the technology should promise good returns on investment. Going forward, these are some of the key focus areas that are expected to drive industry discussions on satcom.