A long way to the summit

The commercial space sector needs India. India needs the commercial space sector. Depending on where you travel, one of these two sentences may not be clear.

The commercial space industry needs India’s PSLV rocket to provide low-cost, reliable access to low Earth orbit for small satellites, at least until promised alternatives have proved themselves (Note to Spaceflight Industries: When will the 89-satellite Sherpa tug be launched?).

The commercial world also needs India’s market to close the business case for the global broadband networks in low- Earth and geostationary orbit now being designed. You cannot write off 17 percent of the world’s population, especially one where large populations live in villages that should erect “Satellite Connectivity Wanted” signs, given satellite’s relevance to them for cellular backhaul and broadband connectivity.

Even if all the satellite broadband projects now planned are built, it’s not clear whether India’s demand will be served. An interesting exercise is to take OneWeb’s 700-satellite low-orbiting broadband network design and lay it over a map of India. How much actual capacity is available to a given village at any given time?

ViaSat Inc.’s recently announced ViaSat-3 terabitper-second project needs the Indian market to justify a seamless global network comprising three satellites. ViaSat recently opened an R&D center in Chennai, India — 125 engineers to start, 250 by 2019 — to tap India’s talent pool and to burnish ViaSat’s credentials for future ViaSat-3 access to the Indian market.

“If Indian government policy allows, a ViaSat-3 class satellite could connect millions of Indians to broadband Internet, potentially adding billions to India’s gross domestic product,” ViaSat said.

EchoStar’s Hughes Network Systems could read competitor ViaSat’s announcement and say: Been there, done that.

Hughes Communications India Ltd. has been in India for 20 years selling VSAT systems and in recent years has tried to leverage this background to get Indian regulatory approval to deploy a consumer broadband service in India. So far, not so good. Hughes is still trying, but meanwhile it has moved forward in Brazil, using Ka-band satellite capacity on a new Eutelsat satellite.

Indian regulators, especially those to take to heart Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stated wish to unclog India’s well-known regulatory morass, should compare their regulatory system to Brazil’s.

They could also remember how long it took for Thailand’s Thaicom to get Indian landing rights for its pioneering IPStar Ku-band broadband satellite system.

None of this is to say sovereignty requirements should be tossed out like so many cathode-ray tubes. Iridium Communications has been forced to build gateway Earth stations in India, Russia and China to get access to these markets, even though Iridium’s network, using inter-satellite links, has no technical or service-quality need for them. The U.S. government likely would insist on the same thing.

But Modi’s Digital India and Smart Cities initiatives will not reach their potential without foreign satellites — lots of them — just as India’s television market can’t satisfy its demand without foreign satellites.

Ask telecommunications satellite fleet operators doing business in India what the regulatory and tax regimes are like and you’d think they’d all be running for the hills.

But they don’t. They hope that, sooner or later, India will catch up to Brazil. There are some green shoots that give reason for optimism. The fact that Indian cellular network operator Bharti Enterprises is an early investor in OneWeb may have been the single most promising event in OneWeb’s early development.

The Indian Space Research Organisation — the folks who own a fleet of revenue-generating telecommunications satellites and also regulate foreign satellite access to India — has spoken recently of privatizing a larger share of India’s space sector. And there’s even a space startup in India — Earth2Orbit of Bangalore.

And yet… India’s telecoms regulator in May published a “pre-consultation paper” proposing to consolidate Indian television broadcasts on just a couple of satellites — Indian-owned, of course.

So for now, ViaSat’s center in Chennai and similar moves by other companies should be seen as new arrivals at Everest Base Camp: Happy you made it here, but it’s a long way to the summit.