Over time, satellite communication (satcom) has emerged as an ideal solution for connecting the rural and remote areas of the country. Many of these areas are marked by difficult terrain, making it difficult to use terrestrial technologies to enhance telecom connectivity. Companies often face techno-commercial challenges in laying fibre in rural areas, as the terrain may not allow cable laying. Operations and maintenance is also a big challenge. In such a scenario, satcom, which offers the same ease and efficacy in terms of providing connectivity in both urban and rural areas, is a good solution. Today, satcom services are playing a crucial role in empowering the rural masses digitally.
The government has also recognised the importance of satcom and has been pushing for its adoption for connecting unconnected rural areas. Key government initiatives such as the BharatNet project and the National Broadband Mission aim to scale up satcom connectivity in the country. Private stakeholders too are keen to explore the satcom opportunity for bridging the digital divide.
Key government initiatives
The government has chosen satcom as a means for connecting the hinterland under its ambitious BharatNet project. Satellite is being used as a medium to connect remote and inaccessible locations, where laying of optic fibre cable (OFC) is either not possible or not economically viable. In fact, the BharatNet satcom network is India’s first true high throughput satellite (HTS) network, deployed end to end, providing over 30 Mbps service to each location.
Under the project, about 5,519 gram panchayats (GPs) located in remote and hilly locations with poor connectivity are to be connected over satellite media, so as to provide broadband connectivity to these GPs expeditiously. The connectivity over satellite media in 1,407 GPs is being provided through Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). The remaining 4,112 GPs are being connected by Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL). As of March 1, 2021, a total of 3,587 GPs have been connected and made service-ready, using satellite as a medium. Among these, 1,155 gram panchayats have been made service-ready by BSNL and 2,432 by BBNL.
Hughes India has been providing satellite connectivity to these GPs. The company was awarded the contract for satellite bandwidth provision by Telecommunications Consultants India Limited and BBNL in October 2020. Under the contract, it will enable internet services for each GP, using capacity from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s GSAT-19 and GSAT-11 satellites with the Hughes JUPITER system. The project covers over 5,000 GPs distributed across 15 states and union territories. These include states in north and Northeast India, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and Lakshadweep. Among the north-eastern states, the project covers areas across Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, places that lack terrestrial connectivity, for instance through fibre or cable.
National Broadband Mission
The National Broadband Mission, launched in December 2019, is also a project that aims to leverage satellite-based connectivity for connecting the rural areas. One of the objectives under the mission is to work with the Department of Space to make adequate resources available for extending connectivity to far-flung areas of the country through satellite media.
In addition, the government has undertaken two key projects for augmenting satellite bandwidth to connect unconnected areas in the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands. The projects are being funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund. While Rs 1.07 billion has been disbursed for the project in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands between 2018-19 and 2020-21, Rs 0.4 billion has been disbursed for Lakshadweep.
Another big move has been the recent approval by the Digital Communications Commission for the provision of cellular backhaul connectivity via satellite through very small aperture terminals (VSATs). The decision would allow commercial VSAT closed user group (CUG) service providers to provide backhaul connectivity to telcos through satellite using VSAT. This will help telecom operators in connecting their mobile towers in tough terrains and rural areas by using satellite services through a VSAT system and enable them to provide services in remote areas, where it is difficult to lay OFC networks.
Sky is the limit
Net, net, the industry seems to be warming up to the idea of leveraging satcom services to scale up rural connectivity. However, a lot still needs to be done to connect every nook and corner of the country. As per Telesat estimates, it will take at least 2 TB of satellite capacity to solve the universal connectivity challenge that exists in India. This is primarily just to solve the backhaul demand. In comparison, there exists 70-100 GB of capacity across India, including HTS capacity, which is expected to be launched in 2021. Therefore, the country would still need a 20-fold increase in capacity to meet its connectivity requirements in the future.
As such, the government needs to make the satcom space competitive as well as lucrative for private players. This can be done by providing appropriate incentives, promoting ease of doing business and attracting investments in the sector. Some initiatives in this direction have already begun. For instance, Methera Global, a global satcom company, is currently working to support a digital village pilot project to demonstrate satcom applications and solutions. Under this project, it is assessing the impact of a connected environment in select rural locations. Similar initiatives need to be taken under a collaborative model so that India can leverage the full potential of satcom services to connect its rural hinterland.