How India’s Space Programme Can Help Shape Its Digital Governance Plans
India’s space programme must help install a comprehensive Internet infrastructure that will help realise goals of digital governance.
India recently launched the GSAT-11A satellite from French Guyana. The satellite has a throughput rate of 16 GBPS and a mission life of 15 years. It has been placed in the geosynchronous orbit and weighs 5,854 kg. This makes it the first 6-tonne class satellite. The satellite has a payload which includes 8 Ku-band hub beams and 32 Ka-band user beams.
The main objective of the satellite is to provide Internet connectivity to remote villages of India as part of the BharatNet programme under the ‘Digital India’ scheme. Bharat Net Project aims to enhance public welfare schemes including e-health, e-banking and e-governance.
One of the ‘vision areas’ of the ‘Digital India’ scheme is to provide governance and services on demand. The need for ‘services on demand’ is much higher for a citizen living away from cities where most of the key government offices are located. Thus, rural India stands to be the biggest beneficiary if Digital India can implement governance and services on demand in the near future.
Governance services provided digitally will also reduce possibilities of corruption at the lower levels. Thus, the digital buzzword needs to become a key component of any government that aims to reduce corruption.
Under the BharatNet program, close to 1.16 lakh gram panchayats have received broadband Internet via optical fibre connectivity as per recent reports. The programme has an aim to provide internet to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. The second phase of the BharatNet programme is expected to be completed by March 2019. But, village level connectivity may not always mean connectivity at the individual level. Therefore, the role of space-based infrastructure becomes important.
To make digital governance a reality, the need for accessibility of cheap Internet is a major prerequisite. Urban areas have minor hurdles in accessing good Internet compared to rural India. The lower number of Internet users in rural areas is the reason for poor Internet infrastructure in rural India. But the number of rural Internet users is likely to change drastically in the near future.
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of Internet users in India increased by 30.5 per cent. This sort of growth has not been registered in any other part of the world. However, 65 per cent of India still does not have access to the Internet.
Therefore, a major requirement to achieve digital governance goals of Digital India is cheap and accessible internet for all citizens. The private sector cannot be asked to burn cash in remote areas as the telecom sector is already under stress in the country. The role of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and our space programme becomes very important in ensuring primary infrastructure for digital governance initiatives to take off.
Providing Internet from the space makes economic sense. According to a study conducted by Neha Satak, Madhukara Putty and Prasad HL Bhat, it costs about $3,000 to lay optical fibre for a length of one kilometre. Calculations by the group indicate that the cost to cover 1 sq km from space is between $1.5 and $6. This is negligible as compared to $3,000 to $30,000 required by the ground infrastructure to cover the same area.
It has also been suggested by experts that satellites meant for Internet services should be placed in the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) or Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) instead of Geosynchronous Orbit as they have a lower latency (GSAT-11 has been placed in Geosynchronous Orbit). Lower the latency of a broadband network; better is the internet experience.
Since satellites in the LEO are constantly moving with respect to the ground, multiple satellites are required to cover entire India to provide 24x7 Internet. Launching more satellites in the LEO to provide continuous Internet connectivity to India’s villages is likely to connect every individual in the village with high-speed Internet. In most cases, the satellite-based Internet infrastructure can supplement the optical fibre based internet infrastructure to handle higher loads that are expected in the near future.
Digital governance initiatives will be successful and cost-effective if a majority of Indians are connected to good quality Internet. Thus, India’s Internet infrastructure must grow by leaps and bounds to ensure Internet access to all citizens. India’s space programme will have to put in efforts to install a comprehensive space-based Internet infrastructure suitable for India’s needs.
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