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ISRO, DoT turf wars delaying connectivity reach: govt official

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MUMBAI: India builds low-cost satellites but has the most expensive bandwidth, a senior Indian government official said on Tuesday, blaming turf wars between ISRO and Department of Telecoms (DoT) for delays in taking connectivity to far-flung areas.

DoT special secretary N Sivasailam also flagged issues of costs and said that the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) should do more in order to take the charges at par with global experience.

"Here is the paradox. We produce the cheapest satellite but the costliest bandwidth," Sivasailam was quoted by PTI as saying in a report, adding that India required more transponders on satellites. He was speaking at the ongoing FICCI-Frames 2018 here at a session on ‘Digital India: Sparking the Access Revolution.’ The session also had a talk by ISRO director for the satcom and navigation programme office, K Sethuraman, who dwelled on the agency’s vision for satellite programme of India.

Sivasailam said there is a "problem of domains" between the DoT and the ISRO that has impacted, for the last 20 years, the roll-out of connectivity in the far flung areas of the country. 

"The problem is of domains. We [DoT] don't want to leave our domain [of spectrum allocation]. ISRO doesn't want to leave its domain. It is a domain related problem...I do not see people coming together and negotiating this aspect out," he said. Admitting that there is "politics", which "makes things difficult", PTI reported, adding that Sivasailam pitched for both the agencies getting over the problems for an overall benefit. 

"It is time it stopped because it is hurting business development and ultimately people are not getting [benefited]," he said. On the critical issue of pricing, he asserted it will cost around Rs 150 to serve one user with the current cost structure in the country, whereas in the US, it costs $1 or Rs 65. "If the US is getting it for $1 for the same bandwidth for the life of the satellite, I should be getting it at the same rate. There is no reason why it should not happen in India. That is my refrain," he said.

Conceding that ISRO helps take satellite connectivity to 5240 far-flung locations in the country, including 4300 in North-East India, Sivasailam elaborated that the cost of satellite, bandwidth and spectrum makes "operations unviable". 

"If you have the volume of business, we should be able to provide at the rates internationally available and that is a matter of some concern for us. We have been working on it, but not necessarily successful on this," he said, stressing that the industry will have to find solutions on this and DoT and ISRO also need to work together on this issue.

Speaking of self-regulation in over the top (OTT) services, he said it cannot substitute regulation. "When you talk of regulator's way of looking at regulations, it lies on consumer side and that's where self-regulation in itself will fail," he said, pointing out that while it is particularly important in the telecom sector with issues of call drop and number portability, it may not be applicable too much in the broadcasting sector.

Sivasailam also spoke of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendation on in-flight connectivity, which will be taken to the Telecom Commission "sooner than later" and it "could be a reality soon". On 20 January 2018, the TRAI came out with recommendations suggesting that airlines should be allowed to offer in-flight connectivity over Indian airspace, including broadband services. The Civil Aviation Ministry, Department of Space and DoT now have to act on the suggestions to make it a reality. 

The Telecoms Ministry official said there are discussions within the department on whether to allow both voice and data on flights or restrict it to voice connectivity alone. The new telecom policy will also be out "very soon," he said.

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