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Strengthening India’s Telecom Infrastructure During Covid-19 And Beyond

The unsung hero during the COVID crisis has been telecom – the industry that has been key to keeping people and enterprises connected – ensuring that the wheels of the economy continue to turn.

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The ravaging effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on individuals and businesses across the world. India’s fight to contain the spread has witnessed a significant response from its citizens as well as institutions that have come together like never before. While enterprises across most sectors have been hit hard, healthcare, pharma, and tech companies have withstood the pandemic’s onslaught and have garnered significant praise by the public. The unsung hero, however, has been telecom – the industry that has been key to keeping people and enterprises connected – ensuring that the wheels of the economy continue to turn. 

During the crisis, it was important for the telecom industry to ensure minimum disruption to networks, and a committed effort was required to preserve the health and wellbeing of the people. While mobile networks provided direct connectivity for millions of subscribers to keep in touch, satellite technology plugged the gaps and strengthened critical networks, providing network operators, governments, and establishments much-needed support for remote work practices and extending essential services to the remotest corners of the country.

According to data released by the Department of Telecom, India’s internet consumption rose by 13% since the nationwide lockdown. Indians consumed 308 petabytes (PB) of data daily on an average for the week beginning March 22. This sudden overnight surge in demand caught the industry off-guard with mobile network operators (MNO) struggling to augment capacity and manage data traffic. During the lockdown, MNOs worked closely with satellite operators utilizing additional backhaul capacity to ensure connectivity to suburban and rural areas. A recent report by Kantar highlighted that India’s rural areas have witnessed a 45% growth in internet penetration in 2019 as compared to urban India’s 11%. Though telecom operators maintain that existing infrastructure has enough capacity to deal with the surge in demand, the growth in demand and rapid changes in consumption trends need to be closely monitored and managed.

Digital is here to stay! Today, schools and universities across the country are increasingly leaning towards digital learning. Video consumption driven by OTT platforms has increased manifold, face-to-face meetings, whether with colleagues, friends, and family or doctors, and other service providers are now virtual. However, to address this growing demand and ensure equitable access to high-quality broadband, India needs to significantly ramp up its communications infrastructure. A focused move toward building a cohesive digital ecosystem is needed to support people, governments, and economies beyond COVID-19.

Among the various challenges facing India’s broadband connectivity infrastructure, is the overdependence on the traditional mode of internet delivery. Across cities and towns, broadband delivery to homes and businesses happens through a mix of optical fiber networks and wireless network towers. With a consistent surge in demand, the deployment of limited terrestrial infrastructure operational in the country; now appears inadequate especially in India’s rural areas and remote regions - home to two-thirds of the country’s population. Despite the government’s push for connectivity and generous budgetary allocations, infrastructure still lacks across India’s rural topography. Even initiatives aimed at enhancing rural broadband availability through high speed wired connectivity, such as NOFN or BharatNet found limited success. The sector is also under stress, further limiting the scope of deploying infrastructure in remote areas.  

As the crisis pushed existing networks to the limits across the globe, satellite communication played an essential role in supporting the increased demand for bandwidth. Right from providing direct connectivity to individuals to ensuring business continuity, satellite connectivity has been crucial towards guaranteeing uninterrupted functioning of institutions delivering essential services and utilities primarily in the rural and far off regions. Today, with a growing burden on healthcare facilities, satellite-based connectivity is working as a backbone for India's telemedicine network enabling doctors to diagnose and treat patients remotely. Thanks to satellite connectivity, rural bank branches across India allowed daily transaction facilities to more than 250 million underprivileged rural citizens. And satellite technology also provided an opportunity for remote learning and enabling live educational broadcasts for students residing across both rural and urban areas.

In these challenging times, connectivity is a critical need. We must actively look for solutions to bridge the existing digital gaps. Satellite connectivity offers an alternate path to terrestrial networks and holds enormous potential to achieve India's digital ambitions. With ubiquitous coverage across the country, it can focus on remote as well as urban areas. With the current scheme of things, it is imperative to look beyond the traditional modes of internet delivery and explore more meaningful use of space-based solutions to meet the demand. Satellite internet can provide an economical solution to most of the challenges faced by ground infrastructure and it complements the ground internet network in areas difficult to penetrate. This unique attribute can widely benefit India’s quest to take broadband rural. Besides, satellite technology's crucial role in addressing connectivity needs during the pandemic has re-emphasized the need of satellite technology in the broader communication mix.

As governments and regulators deliberate on the future of India's communication landscape, authorities must consider the unique advantages of satellite communication towards addressing the growing demand and strengthening the industry's ability to respond to the future crisis. We must prepare today for the crisis that may hit us tomorrow.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
telecom telecom sector COVID-19 Crisis

Shivaji Chatterjee

Mr. Shivaji Chatterjee is the senior vice president of the Enterprise Business Unit at Hughes Communications India Limited (HCIL). He leads the functions of the Enterprise Business Unit that encompasses various aspects of sales and marketing, operations and program management at the company.

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