Satellite communication (satcom) will play a key role in accomplishing the vision of Digital India, believes Partho Banerjee, president and managing director, Hughes Communications India Limited (HCIL). In an interview with tele.net, he talks about the progress made in the Indian satcom sector, as well as Hughes’ role in this space, its key focus areas and future plans. Excerpts…
How would you assess the performance of the satcom sector in India over the past two decades? What have been the most noteworthy achievements of the sector?
Satcom has been a key highlight of India’s growth story. In addition to being a part of the terrestrial communications system, satellites have extended services in areas where other technologies struggle or fail. They have, for instance, helped in decongesting airwaves for air-traffic management in complex and dense airspace and in providing broadband access to aerial or maritime users.
Satcom played the role of an enabler as early as in 1995, when terrestrial infrastructure was mostly missing or in a dilapidated state where it existed. Satellite networks were the cornerstone of India’s liberalisation process and will continue to play a key role in accomplishing the vision of Digital India. Among other achievements, satcom has made a vital contribution to the growth of banking, tele-education, e-health and agriculture, and has provided critical communication support to the defence forces and enabled connectivity during disasters.
What are the biggest challenges impacting the satcom sector today?
The satcom sector has seen a wave of transformation over the years, especially with a series of technological advancements taking place. But the closed nature of the Indian satcom market has kept the benefits of this innovation far from reaching this market. India has suffered severely due to the absence of new satellite technologies in the country for more than 20 years. India’s satcom space is in urgent need of regulatory transformation and liberalisation. One of the key asks has been to open the sector to foreign and private sector participation. The high prices of satellite capacity have also been a key deterrent to the growth of India’s satcom industry. Further, with the satellite industry moving towards Ka-band, a fleet of Indian communication satellites are still operating over the country with communication transponders in C-band, extended C-band, Ku-band, Ka/Ku-band and S-Band.
What have been HCIL’s performance highlights during 2019 and what are some of the key projects that you are currently working on?
In March 2019, Hughes became the first operator in India to receive a flight and maritime connectivity (FMC) licence from the Department of Telecommunications. We are now authorised to provide in-flight connectivity (IFC) and high quality broadband services to Indian and foreign airlines and shipping companies operating within Indian territory. We have already set up a base mobility platform and are in discussions to enhance the services in India. Moreover, we continue to work with partners to enable satcom connectivity for the Indian defence communication network.
We made strong all-round progress in 2019 with the opening of new business opportunities and we gained new contracts. We received the BharatNet HTS project, India’s first deployment of true end-to-end HTS technology and service, providing speeds of over 30 Mbps broadband per site. This is the first project where a JUPITERTM VSAT has proven to give performance and speed comparable to a fibre link. We expect to expand this project to new sites. In 2019, we also entered into a teaming agreement for the design, development, supply, installation, integration and commissioning of satcom solutions for helicopters.
Which enterprise verticals stood out during 2019 in terms of satcom service/solutions adoption? Which are the emerging segments?
In 2019, we completed many significant projects across diverse sectors, including banking, oil and gas, energy, and defence. These projects have been truly transformational for our customers and have enabled us to build on and expand our existing market share.
Today, Hughes’ managed network services are deployed at more than 150,000 locations in India, with multimedia optimised networks (HughesON) covering wired and wireless services including 3G/ 4G, as well as managing traffic, congestion, applications, faults and capacity for mission-critical applications in the banking, oil, telecom infrastructure, rural and BharatNet sectors.
What is the progress in FMC services? What are your future plans in this regard?
We are very excited about the prospects of FMC services in India and are working very closely with operators and service providers to use this licence to expand the reach for both domestic and aeronautical services. HCIL is well positioned to support the roll-out of IFC services in India as it evolves with time. We have spent a lot of time in understanding this segment and building infrastructure for multiple cities and satellites. In the aero world, the delivery of Wi-Fi on board involves a complicated end-to-end service, which IFC providers such as Global Eagle, Gogo and Thales have developed. We expect that all these providers will work with companies like us and we will be able to provide services to domestic and foreign airlines flying into and over the country.
What is the update on your merger with Airtel’s VSAT business? What synergies are you looking at?
We have entered into a joint venture agreement with Bharti Airtel to integrate its VSAT business into Hughes. We are working closely to build greater synergies towards enabling a highly secure and reliable connectivity solution for our customers. The merger process is currently going through applicable regulatory clearances.
Besides satcom, what are the other growth areas that HCIL is focusing on?
Managed services have emerged as one of the key focus areas for Hughes. The global managed services market is growing at a consistent pace and now India is emerging as a hub of managed services. Hughes today provides managed services solutions to more than 250 companies, supporting their unique needs across diverse sectors such as retail, oil and gas, financial services, healthcare and government.
With the explosive growth in cloud and rich-media applications deployed at branches, distributed enterprises are seeking next-generation WAN architectures that deliver high performance, non-stop application availability, and industry-leading security. To address the growing enterprise connectivity requirements, we have introduced an SD-WAN suite of managed network services solutions that are designed and optimised to transform the network, engage employees and elevate customer experience.
Hughes Global Education has witnessed growth as well. We have worked on strengthening and expanding the scope of our existing partnerships with educational institutions and introduced new course offerings in entrepreneurship, data science and digital marketing.
What are your views on the current policy and regulatory regime for the sector? Do you have a policy/regulatory wish list?
There is no doubt that the government has made a strong push towards building a strong digital infrastructure to meet India’s growing communication needs. But the country needs to work towards liberalising the space industry and leverage the advanced Ka HTS satellites, which will, in turn, make satellite bandwidth eminently more affordable.
Besides, the policymaking, licensing, operational and research functions in India are highly concentrated, which restricts both foreign and domestic operators from making greater inroads into India’s satellite space industry. This, in turn, has led to sluggish growth and limited innovation in the sector. The price of satellite bandwidth in India is around six times that of global prices. Concomitantly, the cost of satellite broadband in India is among the highest in the world.
The advent of low earth satellite constellations such as One-Web, Amazon and Telesat Canada is expected to bring a huge advantage of low latency in networks and provide ubiquitous coverage over land, mountains and seas. HTS LEO satellites will compete even more strongly with terrestrial alternatives on performance and user costs, giving the flexibility of ubiquitous coverage, roaming and mobility, with no dark spots. It is important that India makes a concerted effort to adopt such innovations that have the potential to expand connectivity at a rapid pace and make a positive impact on millions of lives.
With the growing emphasis on digital technologies, 5G and HTS satellites will play a key role in connecting the unconnected. We foresee a tenfold increase in low-cost satellite connectivity in India over the next five years, thanks to the HTS and LEO satellite constellations.
What are your targets and growth plans for 2020? What will be HCIL’s key focus areas?
We are optimistic about the future possibilities that will open up with the emergence of new operational areas like maritime, aero, managed services, community Wi-Fi and SME satellite broadband. These are great opportunities that will further aid the growth of India’s satellite industry. We are looking at double-digit growth, which could be much higher if satellite capacities are made available at the international cost/bit level.