What India’s first internet-from-space launch this week means for common man

Earlier this week, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman S. Somanath joined local officials at multinational communications giant Hughes for a light lunch at a luxury hotel in Delhi. Under the radar of most national headlines and tweetati, the announcement they came together to make was nothing short of epochal – the launch of India’s first High Throughput Satellite (HTS) broadband service.

To put it in layman’s terms, India’s first publicly available ‘Internet from Space’ service is now live.

Space is indeed the last frontier for Indian companies thanks to the government opening the sector to private partnerships in Atmanirbhar Bharat’s May 2020 post-Covid announcements. While Indian start-ups ranging from remote sensing to microsatellites have seen a tide of entrepreneurship in the space, the big jackpot has always been the offering of broadband from space.

And with so many global biggies throwing in their hats – Elon Musk’s ambitious Starlink, India’s own Sunil “Airtel” Mittal’s OneWeb (albeit in partnership with European companies) and Amazon’s Project Kuiper – it’s ironic that the first off the block in Billed by many as the most productive market for global satellite internet is a partnership using domestic satellites.

The Hughes-ISRO service uses the Ku-band of India’s GSAT-11 and GSAT-29 satellites together with ground-based Jupiter technology owned by Hughes to offer high-speed broadband internet, including downloads, video calls and connectivity in remote areas such as Cashmere. Ladakh Himalayas.

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While terrestrial coverage accounts for up to 90 percent of the country, the initial focus of the service and the elementary USP of satellite internet is very much the connectivity it brings to distant locations.

For example, according to a Hughes official, the ISRO-Hughes HTS service “covers terrestrially underserved states such as J&K, Himachal Pradesh, parts of Uttarakhand, all north-eastern states including Sikkim, West Bengal, parts of Bihar and Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Rajasthan etc.”

“Also, we have coverage over Bombay High and KG Basin specifically for offshore rigs and vessels operating in the area,” the official added.

“We are confident that (the ISRO-Hughes partnership) will continue to deliver world-class satellite broadband services and further enhance the connectivity experience, accelerating India’s digital transformation,” said Somanath. “With its inherent benefits and ubiquitous nature, the new HTS service will play a critical role in extending broadband connectivity to the most remote locations that are otherwise difficult to reach, and create economic opportunities to boost local economies.”

While the service is available to anyone willing to sign up, as of now it is proving prohibitively expensive for individual citizens – a monthly 1GB per day plan costs Rs 4,590, while a 2GB per day plan costs almost double that . The receiver set (for plans over 20GB per month) can set you back up to Rs 60,000 inclusive of tax.

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“We do not prevent individual consumers from adopting our broadband services, but the pricing, both the one-time investment and the recurring fees, may not be conducive to consumer adoption of the service,” the Hughes official said. The focus is currently on everyone from government departments including the armed forces, large corporations, bank branches, gram panchayats, small and medium sized businesses, remote factories and mines, etc.

However, there is a way out, especially for those in remote locations where regular cable broadband hasn’t reached. “(We) can help deploy community Wi-Fi hotspots in areas where terrestrial broadband or LTE is unavailable, thereby extending (internet connectivity) to consumers,” the Hughes official said. “This would allow consumers to access it on their personal devices without having to invest in the terminal. Additionally, these services are smaller packages where they can buy data as needed.”

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However, individual users can rest assured that upcoming services such as OneWeb will target this segment and it will only be a matter of cost economics before the service becomes ubiquitous as mobile connectivity is currently. OneWeb, which already has provisional government approvals, intends to deploy the service via 648 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, and there’s a chance the service, albeit on a limited scale, will be available before the end of the year the year is started.

Also keeping an eye on the internet-from-space pie is Ambani, whose Jio Platforms has announced plans to form a joint venture with Luxembourg’s SES SA, while Tata is likely to offer Lightspeed, a satellite broadband service from Canada’s Telesat.

But the previous model, Elon Musk’s Starlink, could also be a warning of the pitfalls of global players who are overzealously awaiting the opportunities the Indian market may encounter. Starlink had set up an office in Bengaluru and was even accepting subscriptions before the central government snubbed it for operating without the necessary permits. Starlink, which currently has more than 4,000 subscribers worldwide and over 3,000 LEO satellites in operation, is said to have abandoned its India plans. At least for now.

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