Satellite communication (satcom) is expected to play an active role in providing high speed broadband access and affordable digital connectivity to the unserved and underserved population of India. Together with terrestrial services, it will play an important role in furthering the implementation of the Digital India programme and bridge the digital divide. To unlock the potential of satcom, the government is committed to provide a conducive policy and regulatory framework. The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 (NDCP 2018) highlights the importance of the satcom segment in achieving India’s digital dream. At the recently held fourth international annual satcom summit, “India SatCom-2018”, Aruna Sundararajan, secretary, Department of Telecommunications, highlighted the role that Satcom can play in the digital age. Excerpts…

The digital and cyber space paradigm in India is seeing some fundamental shifts. In the past few years, we have witnessed a deepening in the digital space and that too, at an accelerated rate. The growth in mobile data is a key indicator of this trend. Data uptake has grown by about 15 times in the past three years. This, by any yardstick, is a momentous growth, especially when it is not from a huge base (only 200-300 million people are using data services intensively). Clearly, the intensity of data usage has grown so much that we can truly say that we have entered an era of high-tech data growth.

The other noteworthy point is that these services have reached the common man. These are no longer confined to the first 200 million Indians, who have always had access to first-world services. Interes­tingly, for the first time, we are seeing that this kind of explosive growth in data is not being driven by these 100-200 million Indi­ans; instead it is being driven by first-time data users. All service providers, including Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), have reported that the highest data growth rates have come from far-flung areas of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and the deep rural hinterlands of the country. This signals a paradigm change.

There are other signs also that point to this change. For instance, the financial services industry has decisively shifted its back­bone to digital. We have about 200 million Indians who started using mobile banking for the first time in the past one year. This has contributed to the astonishing growth of companies such as Paytm, and UPI, which has seen monthly transactions grow exponentially, from 30,000 in the past year and a half to 30 million today.

Indians are beginning to enter the digital age, both as consumers as well as creators of content. The social media explosion is a case in point. The rate at which videos are being uploaded and consumed, on apps like WhatsApp, is remarkable.

For several months now, India has been one of the leading countries in terms of smartphone sales, which have been at the highest level. Alongside, there is a huge drive for fiberisation in the industry. In terms of fixed line penetration, an operator has recently announced that it will cover 50 million homes and 30 million en­terprises through its newly launched fibre services. Media consumption is also likely to grow with the convergence of content with the pipes.

All these developments point to the fact that the country needs much more digital infrastructure than it has today. This is also the cornerstone of the NDCP, 2018. Given the country’s aspirational hunger for data, the policy aims to provide connectivity at 50 Mbps to every person by 2022. In order to enable this kind of broadband penetration, we need to look at all forms of media. To this end, a large section of the NDCP 2018 is devoted to Satcom.

The policy broadly looks at expanding the contribution of the telecom ecosystem to GDP from 6.5 per cent to 8 per cent, and creating 4 million additional jobs. And, if we are to develop the kind of modern, robust digital communications infrastructure that the country needs, investments to the tune of $100 billion will be required. We are often asked if $100 billion is a high figure, but I believe this is a realistic investment, which will be required if we have to service all of India’s population, the industry as well as the service sector.

The infrastructure backbone has shifted from physical to digital, and we must have digital communications infrastructure in place to facilitate the flow of data, especially in light of the new developments in areas such as 5G and internet of things (IoT).

Thus, it is important that we do a fundamental rethink on India’s satcom policy, given the emerging requirements as well as India’s aspirations. We certainly need to strike a healthy balance amongst autonomy, security, and the demand for communications when embarking on a comprehensive review of the satcom policy. There are several countries that have achieved this, and India too can take a calibrated position while keeping these three things in mind. We have a significant amount of do­mestic capability available with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Kee­ping our strategic requirements and capabilities in mind, we must work towards me­e­ting the deficit in terms of communication requirements by using this capacity.

I am also aware that this is the area where we can attract significant investments. Thus, it is important to look into the kind of partnerships that the government, the Department of Space (DoS) and ISRO would want to form with other stakeholders. I believe there is room for a fruitful dialogue on this front to gauge investor appetite.

The satellite ecosystem itself is on the cusp of some very big changes, driven by new and emerging satellite technologies such as LEO (low earth orbit) and MEO (medium earth orbit) systems. With the advent of high-throughput satellites, there is a dramatic change in the kind of broadband capabilities that can be delivered. We need to engage to see how these valuable capabilities can be brought to India in the shortest possible time.

In the era of 5G and IoT, the demand for communications infrastructure is going to increase exponentially. We are only at the beginning of the digital age and anybody who has been watching this space will know that each time there is a generation change, it actually results in a paradigm shift in the way data demand increases and new services get developed.

On the telecommunications side, we are now open to allowing in-flight connectivity. Digital infrastructure is the backbone of the government’s Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yo­jana, and the digital inclusion vision. Th­e­­re is also a huge strategic requirement for better communication facilities at the borders, which has been signalled by the country’s security apparatus. The island areas are now looking at communications as a prerequisite for development.

So, it is imperative for DoS and the telecommunications sector to take forward the dialogue around satcom connectivity. Clearly, the demand exists in India and this presents a huge opportunity.

However, much will depend on the policy and regulatory environment. To this end, DoS has taken the lead and approached DoT to work with us, understand our requirements and prepare a roadmap accordingly. The two departments are looking forward to working closely in the coming months to ensure that the existing opportunity in the satcom space gets harnessed to the best possible extent.

“The satellite ecosystem is on the cusp of some very bigchanges, driven by new and emerging satellite technologies such as LEO and MEO. With the advent of high throughput satellites, there is a dramatic chang