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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Explained: Public-private partnership breaches space frontier

One of the main goals of the Indian Space Organisation is to supplement the government's efforts towards making India a global leader in commercial space-based excursions.

Written by Pranav Mukul , Aashish Aryan , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: October 13, 2021 9:25:53 am
Several Indian and international companies have bet on satellite communications as the next frontier to provide internet connectivity at the retail level. (Source: Facebook/Indian Space Association)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday launched the Indian Space Association (ISpA), an industry body consisting of various stakeholders of the Indian space domain. The members of the organisation include government bodies such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and private telecom companies such as Bharti Airtel’s One Web, Tata Group’s Nelcom, L&T, MapMyIndia, and others.

Why is the formation of ISpA significant?

Ever since the race to reach the space and then land on the Moon began between the US and the erstwhile USSR, governments across the world have poured millions of dollars to push the envelope in term of exploring the edges of the space. With time, governments and government agencies collaborated to explore newer planets and galaxies in search of life forms that exist outside Earth.

In the recent past, private sector companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have taken the lead in spaceflight, promising to start tourist flights to space.

Though India too has made significant strides in space exploration over time, state-run ISRO has been at the centre and front of this progress. Several private sector companies, however, have shown an interest in India’s space domain, with space-based communication networks coming to the fore.

What does ISpA aim to achieve?

One of the main goals of the organisation is to supplement the government’s efforts towards making India a global leader in commercial space-based excursions. Of late, ISRO’s rockets have been carrying the payload and communication satellites of various countries; now, private players will also look to broach this space with the new organisation.

ISpA said it would engage with stakeholders across the ecosystem for the formulation of an enabling policy framework which fulfils the government vision of leading commercial space exploration. “ISpA will also work towards building global linkages for the Indian space industry to bring in critical technology and investments into the country to create more high skill jobs,” the organisation said.

Lt. Gen. A.K. Bhatt (Retd), Director General ISpA, Jayant Patil, Chairman, ISpA, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman, Bharti Enterprises during the inauguration of Indian Space Association (ISpA), in New Delhi, Oct. 11, 2021. (PTI Photo)

Who are the stakeholders in this organisation? How will they contribute?

ISpA will be represented by leading domestic and global corporations that have advanced capabilities in space and satellite technologies. The founding members include telecom service providers such as Bharti Airtel, engineering firm Larson & Toubro, and other companies such as Nelco of Tata Group, OneWeb, Mapmyindia, Walchandnagar Industries and Alpha Design Technologies.

Other core members include Godrej, Hughes India, Ananth Technology Limited, Azista-BST Aerospace Private Limited, BEL, Centum Electronics, and Maxar India.

In India, the space-based communications network has taken off with several Indian and international companies betting on it as the next frontier to provide high-speed and affordable Internet connectivity to inaccessible areas as well. This includes SpaceX’s StarLink, Sunil Bharti Mittal’s OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, US satellite maker Hughes Communications, etc.

OneWeb, for example, is building its initial constellation of 648 low-earth orbit satellites and has already put 322 satellites into orbit. Its services are expected to begin this year to the Arctic region including Alaska, Canada, and the UK. By late 2022, OneWeb will offer its high-speed, low latency connectivity services in India and the rest of the world.

In addition, StarLink and Amazon are also in discussion with the Indian government for a licence to offer satellite-based Internet services. SpaceX has a plan to create a network of 12,000 satellites of which over 1,300 are already sky-borne.

Why is satellite-based Internet important in India?

The expansion of the Internet in India is crucial to the Modi government’s dream of a digital India where a majority of government services are delivered directly to the customer. Although the government aims to connect all villages and gram panchayats with high-speed Internet over the next 1000 days through BharatNet, internet connectivity in hilly areas and far-flung places of Northeast India are still a challenge.

To overcome this, industry experts suggest that satellite Internet will be essential for broadband inclusion in remote areas and sparsely populated locations where terrestrial networks have not reached. As of now, however, satellite communications remains limited to use by corporates and institutions that use it for emergency use, critical trans-continental communications and for connecting to remote areas with no connectivity.

As of August this year, India had only 3 lakh satellite communications customers, compared with 45 lakh in the US and 21 lakh in the European Union.

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