Dr R.S. Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)

Satellite communications (satcom) technology has immense potential for true broadband applications, and hence for the acceleration of the government’s Digital India programme. Remote, unelectrified areas are prime candidates for satellite intervention, apart from mountainous regions and other places with inhospitable terrain where satellite broadband scores over its terrestrial counterpart in terms of techno-economic feasibility. Satcom needs further mainstreaming across India to bolster terrestrial technologies such as fibre and mobile towers, and make them ready for 5G. Moreover, the present satcom policy needs to evolve further in order to align with the emerging requirements of 5G and internet of things (IoT), among other developments. A future roadmap to enable this calls for serious participation from all stakeholders for the creation of an investment-friendly ecosystem. Dr R.S. Sharma, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), shared his views on the future of satcom in India at the recently concluded India SatCom 2019 summit, organised by the Broadband India Forum. Excerpts…

There is a huge difference in the cost of satellite bandwidth in India and the US. The reason for this is not inefficiency of technology. Instead, the reason is that we have not allowed the satcom sector to embrace market forces because we have not implemented the open sky policy, a part of the earlier national telecom policy and also of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. There is, therefore, an urgent need to implement the open sky policy both in letter and spirit.

Further, policymakers must not adopt a very protectionist approach towards technology deployment. Continuing with a protectionist policy environment will not be beneficial for consumers. India needs to be technology agnostic and embrace technologies that are robust, frugal, scalable and ubiquitous.

Today, we have newer breeds of satellites and newer space technologies, which are more evolved and advanced than their predecessors. Large latencies are no longer a problem with the emergence of geostationary satellites. Thus, it is not the technological disadvantages which are holding back this sector, but policy and regulatory challenges, which need to be ironed out. The government, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the Department of Space and TRAI are cognisant of the need to embrace new and emerging ICT including satcom, to overcome the existing challenges and should come together to unleash the market forces so as to bring the benefits of satcom to consumers.

Changing technology paradigm

It is important to take cognisance of how the technology landscape in India has undergone a sea change in the past few years. We have a plethora of applications riding on the current breed of technologies such that there is hardly any sector in the economy that has not been touched by ICT. Today, there are applications for everything ICT is being leveraged for competitive advantages, for delivering systems and even government services. To give an example, every month about a billion financial transactions take place on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform which means about 25 million transactions per day. Similarly, the digital biometric identity infrastructure, Aadhaar has seen 8 billion authentications in the past year. Imagine, for a country with a population of 1.2 billion, 8 billion authentications have already been done. This means that one person ends up doing at least one authentication per month on the Aadhaar system, whether it is for the delivery of food grains, mobile SIMs, or for opening a bank account.

ICT will continue to play an extremely important role, especially with a newer breed of technologies such as 5G coming in. 5G has three broad USPs-very low latencies, very high throughput, and massive machine to machine communication/IoT enablement. These three USPs open up new application areas. Low latencies are crucial for remote surgeries, mining exercises, driverless cars, etc.

Essentially, we see ICT becoming the most important platform for all sectors. Thus, the focus should be on providing ubiquitous connectivity to people by developing connectivity infrastructure that is robust as well as affordable. However, there are several constraints in developing a robust infrastructure. These constraints are not investment related but are the ones that are faced on the ground. The right-of-way (RoW) policy has been enacted by the government but there are still operational difficulties in implementing it at the ground level. An infrastructure provider needs to convince the municipality in every state that rolling out fibre is beneficial for the state too and it should happen.

TRAI has always maintained that we should unleash all forces, all areas and all methods that can provide connectivity to the people of our country. For instance, we gave a recommendation saying that cable television must be used as a medium to provide broadband to the people. We recommended that we should have public Wi-Fi, an interoperable, low-cost, mesh of Wi-Fi throughout the country. This will become the UPI of the wireless communication world.

Also, it is important that we become technology-agnostic and not promote one technology over another. We must also use satellite technologies wherever they can be leveraged. The USP of satellite technologies is that they can operate at a fraction of the cost. It is important to implement the open sky policy to ensure better delivery of broadband and data services to the people.

Focus on convergence

Going forward, we must focus on the convergence of technologies, where multiple technologies are used to deliver best-in-class communication services to the people. It does not have to be just one dominant technology from top to bottom. It is important that the government becomes completely technology-agnostic and allows market forces to play. This will also bring down the cost of technology.

For instance, when we initiated the Aadhaar project, we decided to capture iris scans too. The reason was that fingerprints are only 95 per cent accurate, which means we could potentially have 5 per cent inaccuracies. Now, 5 per cent of 1.2 billion is 60 million people, who could well have two to three identities, thus defeating the very purpose of the uniqueness of the identity. So, we decided to capture iris scans too because it offers an accuracy level as high as 99 per cent. At that time, the cost of one iris scanner was about $400, and there was scepticism around why iris scanners were being deployed given the cost consideration. Many believed that fingerprint scanning should suffice. But we convinced the people about the idea as we were following an open standard base system, wherein instead of buying a particular brand we decided to prescribe minimum standards for the iris scanner to be plugged into the UIDAI system. As a result, the cost of iris scanners came down to about one-tenth within one year.

The same is likely to happen to any technology, once you start using it. For instance, in the case of satcom, the usage is limited at present. Once the technology reaches scale, the prices would come down dramatically. I strongly believe that there exists a huge potential for satellite technologies in this country and there are several areas and sectors where these are needed, where these have a USP, especially in areas such as big data.

In sum

Given the fact that India is such a large and unique country, the technologies that are being adopted should meet certain considerations. First, I believe, it is imperative that we use technologies that are affordable. India is an extremely price-sensitive market and affordability is one of the key factors that determine the success of a technology. Second, there is a need for ubiquity in terms of technology reach. Communication technologies need to be inclusive and cannot be deployed only for a fraction of the population. These must be created for all and must be scalable. Of course, affordability and inclusiveness are related. And, last but not least, all the technologies being deployed must be interoperable and should not operate in silos. I believe all these characteristics are very important for a technology to see  successful adoption among Indians.

We, as a country, need to have the best of information and communications technologies, and as regulators and policymakers, we must ensure that these technologies get deployed in an inclusive and affordable way, such that it touches the life of every common man. That should be the primary focus.