Benefits of Musk’s Starlink for India far outweigh its costs

The government should grant Elon Musk’s broadband service Starlink, based on low-earth-orbiting satellites, the permission it has sought to operate in India. This would supplement terrestrial connectivity and, besides, become the primary means of accessing the Internet in large parts of India that are difficult to reach via terrestrial cables or microwave links hopping across towers. The service is certainly more expensive, compared to the ultra-low-cost mobile broadband Indians are used to, but cost-effective for remote areas. A competing satellite-based broadband service, OneWeb, would prevent monopoly pricing in satellite-based broadband access. OneWeb is launching 36 of its hundreds of satellites today using the Indian Space Research Organization’s commercial launch facilities.

Access to reliable and reasonably fast internet connectivity is a necessity in the modern world. It is recognized as a fundamental right in certain countries, France, for example, and, India, too, has seen judicial pronouncements declaring internet access as a fundamental right. It might be taken for granted in India’s bigger cities, but is still a dream in many remote parts of the country. Therefore, the government launched the National Optical Fiber Network in 2011, to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with optical fiber and wifi equipment that residents could use, at least in the vicinity of the Panchayat office, to go online.

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Failing multiple deadlines, and renamed BharatNet in 2015, the project continues, and claims to have reached 187,245 panchayats. Of these, Wifi has been set up, as per the official website, in 104,293 panchayats, but wifi is active in only 53,600 locations. Clearly, the terrestrial route to universal internet access will take quite some time more — India has more than 600,000 villages, apart from thousands of towns. It makes sense to make use of satellite-based broadband, to enable remote parts of India’s vast expanse to go online.

It should be recalled that satellites with very small apertures (V-SATs) have been providing internet connectivity since the 1990s — several bank ATMs and ITC’s e-chaupal functioned on the basis of V-SAT linkage. Connection by V-SAT is primitive compared to offerings by Starlink, OneWeb and the like. The modern, satellite-based internet connectivity has low latency — latency is the time elapsed between initiation of an action and its taking effect — old-school satellite-based internet, thanks to reliance on satellites close to earth, in low-earth orbit (LEO). Geostationary satellites are placed nearly 36,000 km away from the planet, while LEOs are anywhere between a hundred to a thousand km above earth. When a signal has to be bounced off a satellite thousands of km away, it creates latency, whereas LEO satellites cause little latency.

The trouble with communication via LEO satellites is that you require hundreds, if not thousands, of such satellites for the job — the closer they are to earth, the faster they whiz around, and have to bounce their signals off a number of satellites to reach the intended destination of the originating signal. Starlink relies on thousands of satellites. Elon Musk’s Space X hopes to make money primarily from these Starlink satellites: its launch vehicles to reach the International Space Station or the moon or Mars are expensive, infrequent projects.

Can satellite internet be affordable? That depends on the volume of traffic. Starlink offers tariffs and terminal equipment charges in the US that are a fraction of the charges and fees it demands abroad. If India can generate enough traffic, the costs can probably be bargained down. OneWeb has a large stake by Bharti Airtel and competition between the two satellite services would bring costs down.

If all major operators choose to use satellites for data backhaul in parts of the country with little optical fiber capacity, that should generate enough traffic to make it viable for LEO satellite operators to lower their tariffs.

Ukraine has been depending on Starlink for vital battlefield communications. Can India afford to rely on a foreign service for its own strategic communication needs? It need not and should not. It should have its own network of communication satellites under its own command for military communications, fortified with anti-satellite attack capabilities.

When it comes to Starlink and OneWeb, the choice before India is the huge capital cost and time it would take to make terrestrial optical fiber connectivity and the operational expense that would be higher than for land-based communications, when it uses satellites in LEOs. Given the speed with which remote areas can be connected via satellite, it is a no-brainer. India should open up to both Starlink and OneWeb, and to other services when they are ready to operate in India. From India’s online Goods and Services Tax to new advances in financial inclusion and healthcare, many things depend on always-on access to broadband services. The social benefit of achieving ubiquitous broadband access far outweighs the cost involved.

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