Speak via satellite!

28th May 2017
Speak via satellite!
Latest model of Inmarsat's ISatPhone

India has taken the first baby steps to allow  use of satellite phones.
By Anand Parthasarathy 
Bangalore and Singapopre, May 29 2017: Till quite recently, travellers entering India, including her own citizens,  had to answer a question in the arrival  card at immigration: Are you carrying a satellite phone? India remains among the small group of nations including, Russia, China, Cuba and Myanmar  which bans the use of satellite phones within its boundaries, thanks to  perceptions that such  calling devices, untethered to a terrestrial operator within the country, could be exploited by terrorists.
In the process India has denied itself a  robust and fail-safe technology which has served well in disaster situations worldwide when all conventional communication channels fail. The need was acutely felt  during the Chennai floods of December 2015,  when  rescue  operations were cut off from  victims for almost  two days. Ironically,  only five  months earlier,  in July that year, when Nepal suffered a massive earthquake,  satellite phones as well as  sat-backed   Broadband Global Area Networks (BGAN)  were widely used by aid agencies to coordinate rescue and rehabilitation.
Perhaps someone in Delhi was watching... because  last week,  in what is a   huge change of policy, the Indian government   enabled  BSNL and its partner,  global satcom  services leader Inmarsat,  to set up  an Indian Global Satellite Positioning System ( GSPS) gateway in Ghaziabad -- a prelude to   shortly  offering government and private sector customers,  access to  satphone services.  BSNL will, offere  the service initially to government departments-- disaster relief agencies,  Border Security, Railways etc. In 18 months to 2 years, the service will be offered to all citizens, says BSNL Chairman Anupam Srivastava. Call rates are expected to be in the Rs 30 - Rs 40  per  minute range.
Inmarsat's world-wide services  are backed by three geostationary satellites, recently augmented by a fourth for redundancy.  By setting up an earth station here,  Inmarsat has addressed  the government's security concerns -- since  the communication will now land   within India -- like all other  domestic cellular telecom. In a win-win it will now allow government to equip civil authority and  the national disaster relief agencies with satphones as well BGAN-type data terminals which will work when all other forms of communication -- radio,  cellphone,  Internet and  telephone -- fail.
In Singapore at the CommunicAsia  show last week, I  got to try out the Inmarsat ISatPhone2, a handy  316 gram device with its own swing-out  satellite antenna. It works for voice, text and data -- but the data connection is something of a standby and is quite slow --  around 2.4 KBPS. The voice was crystal clear when I called home. 
Inmarsat is not the only player on the satcom scene. The other  names are Iridium, Globalstar and Thuraya,  with fairly similar services.  Iridium and Globalstar use 40-60 low level  earth orbiting satellites rather than geostationary satellites.
Once India has  met its security criteria, chances are,  it will soon open up satphone usage to private enterprises as well. "Only Connect!" said E. M. Forster, famously,  in his book 'Howard's End'. Technology has changed beyond recognition, but the  need  to connect people to people, is  ageless.