ISpA seeks to consider USOF subsidy for space broadband services

The Indian Space Association or ISpA said that the Centre should consider a subsidy for satellite communications (satcom) providers through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to bridge the existing digital divide and serve the diverse set of sectors, complementing the ongoing BharatNet initiative.

“The government is rolling out BharaNet that also has a cost to rollout. But the government looks at this as a national priority to be able to digitally connect people for education and health purposes in each village of the country. And if the government so feels, it would like to perhaps use the USOF subsidy to roll out the same connectivity using satellite. That’s a wonderful opportunity. The aim of the government will remain the same,” Jayant Patil, ISpA chairman told ETTelecom.

USOF is a Rs 55,000-crore strong corpus, established in 2002 to offer widespread and non-discriminatory access to digital services to those living in the country’s rural and remote areas.

However, the ambitious BharatNet program that aims to connect more than 600,000 villages through 250,000 gram panchayats or village blocks nationwide, that was originally envisaged in 2012, has rolled out optic-fibre cable to 180,000 blocks only as per the latest statistics.

ISpA launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi early this month, includes Bharti Airtel, Tata group’s Nelco, OneWeb, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Ananth Technologies and Mapmyindia as some of the group’s early members.

OneWeb, the UK-based low-earth orbit constellation, has partnered with Sunil Mittal-driven Bharti Airtel, and intends to launch space broadband services in 2022.

“The USO already visualises the use of satellites for backhaul. For backhaul, we have been using satellites for some time,” Patil said, adding that the government should look at other areas, and there would be no need of deploying physical infrastructure.

Citing the example of the US-based Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), he said that the country with a rich pool of resources, has been striving to connect the unconnected.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) committed the $9.2 billion under the RDOF for the next 10 years to facilitate broadband service to more than 5 million unserved homes and businesses in rural parts of the US. Under the phase – I, SpaceX won $885.5 million, and a minsuule $1.3 million won by Hughes Network Systems.

The advantages to do that (space broadband), according to him, are huge unlike BharatNet which he believes after putting efforts for several years, the progress remains slow. “I’m saying there’s the opportunity, the world is doing it and it’s a good example for us to actually look at it.”

Patil further said that though the initial space infrastructure cost would be high, but the quantum of density, and the ability it provides to reach every square meter, remain unmatched.

“The usage and the requirement of data at these smaller places is quite high. We are doing some USO projects as telco in the northeast part of the country. We were amazed at the amount of data usage which was happening in these areas,” Rahul Vatts, vice-chairman, ISpA and chief regulatory officer at Bharti Airtel said.

Despite the mobile telephony led by urban usage surging to a record level of 1.8 billion, nearly 25,000 villages remain digitally unconnected across 10 states.

The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 drafted by then telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan and additional secretary N Sivasailam, aims to “channelise the USOF to ensure connectivity for all uncovered areas” in the Northeastern states, Himalayan region, LWE areas, aspirational districts, islands, and border areas, and advocated the use of satellite-based connectivity.

In September 2014, the Cabinet had approved a big-ticket telecom connectivity program ‘Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan’ for the Northeast region encompassing eight states.


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