Moving to regulate satellite communication from the country, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has given the initial nod to earmark $8 million to state-owned BSNL for the establishment of a satellite communication gateway in India.
Currently, satellite-based telecom services in India are provided by international operators without an earth station in the country. In the absence of a gateway in India, law enforcement agencies are not able to monitor calls made from or to the satellite phones being used in India which, according to DoT officials, pose a national security threat.
The country is also dependent on foreign gateways for satellite communication services required by security forces and others at the time of disaster response, especially when normal communication systems break down.
The proposal to build what is called a Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite or GMPCS gateway in the country will enable the rollout of full-fledged satellite-based communication services by BSNL in partnership with the UK-based INMARSAT (International Mobile Satellite Organisation).
Officials in the DoT said BSNL has already been granted a ‘sui generis’ licence for the provision of satellite-based services on the recommendation of the sector regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), conditional to the satellite gateway being located within India.
An agreement has already been signed by BSNL with INMARSAT three months ago and the expected completion date of the project is March, 2016.
In the early part of the last decade, INMARSAT was offering services in India through the then state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL). But this service was almost completely wound up after the government divested its majority stake in VSNL to Tata Communications.
The INMARSAT, which was set up under the aegis of United Nations in 1979 with India as one of the founding members, provides its satellite services with a constellation of four satellites that are located in the geo-stationary earth orbit.
According to the proposal, BSNL has proposed to establish the gateway under technology transfer from INMARSAT, with the international organisation’s wholly-owned retail arm Stratus likely to be the ‘executive provisioner’ of the service to BSNL.
A satphone enables a subscriber to communicate from any point, irrespective of location, through a hand-held terminal. The proposed gateway will enable global satellite mobile service under the GMPCS licence.
An estimated 1,532 authorised satellite phone connections are operating within country, a majority of them being used by security forces. Tata Communications had also issued 4,143 permits to the maritime community for use of such phones on board ships and ocean-going vessels. After the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, satellite phones were banned for personal use in India.
According to DoT officials, having an operator provide such a telecom-based service in India, with a gateway installed in India, will bring down the tariff sufficiently and satellite phones will have much more secure connections within the country.
“While BSNL has estimated that Rs 52 crore will be required towards the cost of the gateway, the DoT has given ‘in principle’ approval to provide support of $8 million to BSNL for establishment of the GMPCS gateway in India,” an official said.
In October last year, US-based satellite services company Iridium had also written to the Telecom Ministry, keen to be part of the BSNL satellite gateway project. Iridium had earlier formed a consortium with Indian financial institutions that included State Bank of India and Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services. This venture, however, failed to take off.
INMARSAT’s present constellations of satellites that provide global coverage — the I-3 satellites — were launched in 1996. In view of these being fairly old satellites, INMARSAT announced the retirement of some services from these satellites starting September 2014. It has, meanwhile, launched the next-generation satellite services.