ISRO Satellite Launch: View: ISRO’s historic satellite launch is a giant leap for digital rights

India began its Diwali celebrations, ’22, with a great big bang. 36 commercial internet satellites were launched into space by India’s largest rocket. The event is indeed historic; It’s the first major public-private partnership for the brilliant public triumvirate of ISRO, India’s star space agency, its commercial arm – New Space India Limited (NSIL), and the special space activities liberalizer cum facilitator – IN-SPACe, and their partnership has been cemented with the satellite company OneWeb led by the Czar of Indian Telecom, the matchless trailblazer, Sunil Bharti Mittal. This time he is blazing a starry trail in the skies to show the way for supercharging internet connectivity in India.

OneWeb’s low Earth orbit satellites (LEOs) offer broadband connectivity at high speeds with very little latency (delay). The satellites are designed to connect to antennas on the ground as they fly by them. Challenged as we are by high digital divide in India and the formidable cost and tremendous operational difficulties in reaching the remote and unconnected, these LEO satellites take us closer to fulfilling the promise of basic rights to all Indians, in line with the ‘sabka saath’ , sabka vikaas’ ideal.

In 2020, the Supreme Court declared the right to internet access a fundamental right of Indians. This is in sync with United Nations recommendations and since access to food, clothing, shelter, education, jobs, and even healthcare is increasingly tied in with being online, it is indeed very essential. However, as a nation, it has been challenging to provide internet access to all our brothers. Although we have made immense progress towards bridging the digital divide, the chasm remains wide.

While we have a total of around 800 million broadband connections now, it should be understood that unique subscribers are only about 500 million. In effect, therefore, more than half of India remains unconnected. While the National Broadband Mission aims to lay 50 lakh km of dense Optical Fiber Networks across India by 2024, just next year, currently India’s optical fiber network covers only 28 lakh km. Our country’s vast, uneven terrain coupled with poor infrastructure in these regions make it almost impossible to rely solely on fiber optic cables. LEO satellites are the most intuitive way to maximize internet coverage in the shortest time, available almost on tap. Progress on satellite-provided connectivity can be accelerated; some of the funds allocated to optical fiber networks can be re-directed towards launching more satellites.

To many, the ISRO/NSIL/InSpace – OneWeb partnership makes India a very powerful contender in the new-age space race. The space economy in India is set to grow to USD 13 billion by 2025 (ISpA-EY report) — an incredible leap towards self-sufficiency or an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’ In 2021, investments in the space sector grew 196% from the previous year. There are more than 100 space tech startups in India already, and the market will experience rapid growth with this launch.

The OneWeb partnership is just the first step. It’s common knowledge that ISRO can get excellent work done, at a fraction of the cost it takes around the world. If the Indian space sector gets continued support, satellite services and application segments will be the largest slice of the space economy pie, an estimated 36% by 2025! And we’re talking about manufacturing an entire ecosystem of, not just the satellites themselves, but the parts and services required to produce them. It is a win-win for all involved.

Key drivers for the space sector growth are collaborations with private industry, introduction of new technology into India, and a lower cost of launch services. ISRO’s public-private partnership is also a sign of changing times. Setting up NSIL and IN-SPACe as single-window autonomous agencies shows the world that it can be easy to do business in India. Additionally, the government has introduced business-friendly policies for remote sensing and satellite communication.

Global investors are attracted by the vast unconnected market of India. This appeal will rise exponentially as the next 500 million Indians gain connectivity and need products and services. The key to this growth is to continue the trajectory towards India’s dominance in the global space economy. In particular, because this growth ties into the ‘Make in India’ mission to boost Indian manufacturing. By 2025, the satellite manufacturing segment will be the second-fastest growing in the Indian space economy.

This is due to the demand for smaller satellites, where Indian manufacturers can win. With this growth and the government’s support, global investments are likely to pour in. As we stand on the launchpad of India’s space economy boom, now is the time to nurture this fledgling industry without the specter of satellite spectrum auctions weighing them down. The exorbitant prices, which auctions inevitably lead to, could well demise the promising fledgling sector. India can ill afford such a calamity.

India’s share in the global space economy is only 2%. Demonstrating a strong ease of doing business and a reasonable policy framework in the Indian space market can attract more global investments in the country, increasing our share of the space economy, and bringing in billions of dollars. The opportunities are endless but within reach, provided all Indians get to harness the power of the internet. The ISRO/OneWeb achievement on Diwali eve is a small but important step in our journey in both digital and real skies.

Author is Hon.FIET (London) and President, Broadband India Forum


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