Monday, June 24, 2024

Let satellites terminate patchy internet coverage

The placing of 36 OneWeb satellites in orbit on Sunday testified again to the reliability of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) LVM-3 as a satellite launch vehicle. The starring role played by our space agency in the global quest for complete connectivity is a source of pride for India. That Isro can do this at a cost lower than rival space agencies is a mark of its commercial leadership in a rarefied sector. We must thank the grit and ingenuity of our scientists who had to defy steep odds and overcome formidable constraints to gain this edge. As Isro’s mission is to “harness, sustain and augment space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration,” we must also look beyond its revenue potential. London-based OneWeb Ltd is a global enterprise that now boasts of 618 satellites to provide high-speed internet services around the world. While it counts France’s Eutelsat, Japan’s Softbank and the UK government as shareholders, the Bharti Group’s 30% stake makes it the biggest. With Airtel as its ground partner, OneWeb is expected to plug gaps in domestic coverage.

According to Bharti chief Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb plans on launching services in India this July or August. This is significant, as it could extend the internet to parts of the country that either remain deprived of access or suffer poor connectivity. While fibre-optic cables have wired up zones of high-density demand, with download speeds having risen sharply over the past decade, the web will fulfill its ‘world wide’ promise only once no patch is left uncovered. India must get the remotest of its residents onto the information highway for the benefits of our fast-expanding digital economy to reach every citizen. The Centre’s Digital India programme envisions as much. With a constellation of satellites ready to act as space infrastructure, the government is expected to lay down a spectrum policy for the delivery of terrestrial links. Whether airwaves for it would be auctioned or allocated is still unclear. There are a few other global players in this space, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, but the existence of competition in itself does not justify a process of competitive bidding. If state revenue is sought to be maximized, it could push service costs up and make it a privilege more than a provision. A cheap allotment of spectrum, on the other hand, could be challenged because it would look like an arbitrary giveaway to a private entity. Either way, New Delhi would have to proceed with utmost transparency in its policy choice and not let delays arise from indecision. With technology enablers up and ready, it would be unfortunate if other factors held us back from expanding the web’s frontiers.

Ironically, though, even as our space agency grabs global attention for its role in giving the internet a space-age fillip, India has earned an adverse reputation for the frequency with which people find themselves barred from going online. Last year, we had more internet shutdowns than any other country, marking half a decade of this dubious distinction, according to a report by advocacy group Access Now. For our digital dreams to be met, however, we must achieve the promise of full access reliability along both spatial and temporal dimensions. This would mean no snap-offs, unless there is a dire national emergency that demands it. We need an always-on protocol for internet services in the country. It’s a vital resource and we must treat it as such.

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