The need for digital connectivity has never been more pressing. The pandemic has changed the work ethos and day-to-day lives of people across the globe. Although India has already made a giant leap in the digital world, there is still a long way to go to connect the unconnected. Mo­st of the remote areas are still not on the internet despite India being the fastest growing mobile market in the world. One part of India has been abuzz with the la­unch of 5G services, while the other is oblivious to the internet revolution. This is where satellite communication (satcom) services could fit in and bridge the digital divide that exists in the country, giving way to the government’s vision of creating a digitally connected India.

As per a report by the Telecom Regu­la­tory Authority of India (TRAI), there is 93 per cent broadband penetration in ur­ban India, versus a mere 29.3 per cent in ru­ral India. Many of these areas are mar­ked by a rugged terrain, making it difficult to use terrestrial technologies to enhance telecom connectivity. Over the years, telecom players have been trying hard to expand internet coverage to every nook and corner of the country, but the high ex­pansion cost and setting up towers in far-flung areas are not feasible. To this end, satcom could provide last-mile connectivity, which will also lower down costs for service providers. In the coming years, satcom services in India are all set to witness an influx of investments from global players as well as local companies.

Key initiatives

The government has recognised the im­portance of satcom and has been pushing for its adoption to connect 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 to bridge the digital divide. The following are the key developments in the space of government programmes…

BharatNet project

The BharatNet project is being implemented in a phased manner in India to provide broadband connectivity to all gram panchayats (GPs). The government has chosen satcom as one of the means for connecting the hinterland under this 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 this project, about 5,519 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. As of July 2022, a total of 177,550 GPs have been already made service-ready, including 4,394 GPs connected th­rou­gh satellite. In Jharkhand, 2 GPs have been made service ready on satellite media out of the 10 planned GPs. Further, in Odisha, 22 GPs have been made service ready on satellite media out of the 43 planned GPs. Also, 15 GPs have been planned on satellite media in Andhra Pradesh.

Besides, Hughes Communications In­dia has been selected by Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL) and Telecommu­nications Consultants India Limited to provide satellite connectivity to 5,000 re­mote GPs. Hughes India will enable internet service for each GP, using capacity from the Indian Space Research Organisa­tion’s (ISRO) GSAT-19 and GSAT-11 satellites with Hughes’ JUPITER System, which is in use at more than 40 satellites worldwide. Moreover, BBNL has piloted its satellite-based internet services in hilly and remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh. How­­ever, details regarding a commercial roll-out as well as tariffs of services will be drawn up after the project is piloted in more states. Costs, however, are expected to be economical and a shortage of revenue for implementing agencies will be plugged through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).

National Broadband Mission

The National Broadband Mission, launch­ed in December 2019, is also a project that aims to leverage satellite-based connectivity for communicating with 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. To this end, the government has established the National Broadband Mission Di­rec­torate to ensure the time-bound meeting of countrywide broadband connectivity ex­pan­sion targets as part of its efforts to bridge the digital divide.

Other measures

The government has launched a high ca­pacity satellite-based telecom connectivity for Lakshadweep islands, commissioned by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Through the USOF, under the De­partment of Telecommunications, the government will be funding the project. Meanwhile, BSNL has already started the project for doubling the satellite bandwidth from 1.71 Gbps to 3.46 Gbps, and laying of submarine OFC between Kochi and Laksha­dweep islands.

Role of geostationary satellites

From a practical standpoint, satellite is the optimal solution for wireless network deployments in rural, remote and hard-to-reach areas, where sparsely populated, geographically dispersed communities live, work and play without access to the internet. The most obvious is the ubiquitous reach of satellite. Geostationary satellite networks provide ubiquitous coverage to 99 per cent of the world’s populated areas. Owing to the ubiquitous nature of geostationary satellite networks; distance, topography, even the line-of-sight restrictions of microwave are not constraints when providing backhaul connectivity to hard-to-reach areas. Also, as the satellite coverage is everywhere, communication service provi­ders can connect any number of rural and remote wireless sites in far less time than while using fibre or microwave.

Today’s advanced geostationary satellite networks are being leveraged to quickly and economically bring 3G/4G and Wi-Fi services to rural and remote communities for the first time. For example, a leading mo­bile operator in Uganda is providing connectivity to hard-to-reach communities, enabling access to mobile money services and education for primary schoo­ls. Mobile network infrastructure companies such as Africa Mobile Networks, for example, are using satellite backhaul to work with mo­bile operators to deploy so­lar-powered cell sites that provide voice and data services to millions in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. Meanwhile, small rural and remote communities in countries such as Camer­oon, the Democratic Republic of the Con­go, Liberia, Nigeria and Zambia are now able to use mobile phones for the first time where they live, work and play. Besides, pro­jects are under way in many countries such as Rwanda, where solar-powered Wi-Fi service backhauled over satellite is providing schools with access to quality educational programmes.

Issues and challenges

Despite its advantages, satcom technology has several disadvantages compared to cable and fibre internet. Satellite-based in­ternet is much slower compared to its ca­ble counterpart. Satellite internet also has higher latency, which means that the time it takes between sending and receiving signals is higher. It is also costlier than cable and fibre internet. However, the latter is not standardised, which means that data rates differ across countries. Besides, wea­th­er conditions might disturb satellite services, but the disruption might be faint.

Meanwhile, from a regulatory point of view, satcom growth in India has faced several hurdles due to the rigid regulatory structure and system that discourages free market forces from entering the satcom market. Besides, the satcom sector could face some security-related challenges, especially if it is being seen as a key connectivity channel to meet the demands of 5G backhaul and internet of things. An increase in the deployment of satellites will make them more prone to cyberattacks, compromising sensitive information, with potentially devastating consequences. Of late, it has become relatively easier for hackers to purchase and operate hacking equipment. It is mu­ch easier to aim an antenna at a satellite and send communication to it. The­refore, it is critical that a level of trust be established bet­ween earth-bound devices and satellites.

The way forward

Net, net, satcom technology seems to be a good bet for providing internet services to the remotest geographies. However, des­pite its various applications and uses, satcom remains a fringe technology for communications, especially considering its long gestation time from design to execution, as well as the relative difficulty of upgrading the satellite payload once dep­loyed in space. In India, the industry seems to be warming up to the idea of leveraging satcom services to scale up rural connectivity. That said, there is still a lot that needs to be done to connect every nook and corner of the country. Although the industry is at its nascent stage, it possesses the potential to revolutionise connectivity across rural India.