Michael Butler Issue: India 2005
Article no.: 8
Topic: Emerging technology, emerging hope
Author: Michael Butler
Title: Chief Operating Officer
Organisation: Inmarsat Ltd
PDF size: 112KB

About author

Michael Butler is chief operating officer of Inmarsat Ltd., where his primary role is to manage all aspects of Inmarsat’s global core business in the land, aeronautical and maritime markets, and to grow the company’s revenues and profitability. Mr Butler has over 17 years’ experience in the telecommunications industry, commencing his career at BT International, where he served as an account director for one of BT’s top 50 accounts. Mr Butler joined MFS, later acquired by WorldCom, where he was responsible for sales management and business development. Mr Butler then spent two years as director of customer champions before assuming the role of managing director, MCI WorldCom UK.

Article abstract

Large parts of India’s population are still beyond the reach of telecommunications. Even where mobile networks are available, they are unlikely to be able to deliver the high-speed data capability needed. This lack of infrastructure often means that local populations have little or no access to information, medical services and educational facilities. Satellite communications can reach rural communities and provide such services as distance learning disaster relief support, telemedicine and weather, market and agricultural information to support community needs.

Full Article

The potential for satellite communications in India has long been recognised. Sweeping reforms introduced by progressive Indian governments over the last decade have dramatically changed the nature of the telecoms sector, and the country is now one of the fastest growing telecommunications markets in the world. The numbers of both fixed-line and mobile subscribers are increasing rapidly, and with higher subscriber numbers comes lower tariffs and cheaper handsets, fuelling the expansion ever further. Much of this is boosted by the worldwide reputation that India has built for expertise in Information Technology (IT)–especially the services, made possible by IT, that Indian companies provide on an outsourced basis for some of the world’s largest corporations. A recent forecast from research firm Cris Infac predicts a 27 per cent annual growth in India’s telecoms subscriber base–expected to reach 212 million by March 2009. Mobile services are expected to account for more than 85 per cent of the projected increases in telecoms services revenue by the end of 2009. Despite this tremendous growth, large parts of India’s population are currently beyond the reach of telecommunications–certainly the mobile networks and, in many cases, the terrestrial networks too. Even where mobile networks are available, they are unlikely to be able to deliver the high-speed data capability need by the country’s IT literate professionals and by the many businesses, especially the Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES), such as business process outsourcing. To plug this shortfall, the country has turned to satellite communications and there are now a number of operators in the market. Working closely with the Indian government, satellite operators provide a range of satellite communications services to connect users across the country. Much interest has been focused upon the mini-M service, a voice telephony and low-speed data solution. The Indian army, for instance, uses mini-M to enable soldiers in the field or at distant installations to speak to their families from the remotest corners of the country. This sort of satellite-based telephony also formed the basis of an extensive project from India’s Department of Telecommunications to provide public telephones to villages and small population centres in the most inaccessible parts of the country. Some of the locations where these telephone systems are installed are found as high up as 6,096 metres above sea level. Other such systems are found in regions where extreme weather conditions prevail; some installations must function in temperatures that reach extremes below minus 40 degrees Celsius. Satellite services are also used to coordinate disaster management in India. Emergency responders, from the National Disaster Management Group to the 29 state-level cells, rely on satellite technology to remain connected in the most urgent of situations. Recently, satellites have been used to provide communications support for the Tsunami relief efforts in India and surrounding countries in cooperation with the Télécoms Sans Frontières relief agency. Healthcare and telemedicine applications in India also rely on satellite communications technology. For instance, telemedicine support makes it possible to provide sufficient, high-quality, healthcare to the millions of pilgrims who each year visit the Sanctum Sanctorum of Lord Ayyapa in the hills of Sabarimalai. Since spiritual laws prevent anyone from driving closer than 10km, pilgrims must walk the final stage, and the increasing number of pilgrims means that vital healthcare services for exhausted, often elderly or sick, travellers is becoming more complicated to provide. With the help of Elektronik Lab from India and Telemedic Systems in the UK, a remote telemedicine link was set up in Sabarimalai that includes satellite-based phone services. The satellite phone system sends information collected from the telemedicine application’s instruments, including heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and blood oxygenation levels, to experts at the Apollo Hospital’s 24-hour telemedicine centre at Chennai. Teleconsulting–the use of videoconferencing facilities between doctors at the site and in the hospital located, in principle, at least, anywhere in the world–uses the ISDN capability of a GAN (Global Area Network). Accordingly, there are a number of areas where satellite communications providers find an opportunity to play a significant role in the country’s communications mix. One opportunity that is particularly exciting, however, and where we see the real difference and social impact that satellite communications can make, is in delivering distance learning and e-learning initiatives to students across India. At the end of 2003, Inmarsat signed a three-year agreement with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an organ of the United Nations, to provide developing countries with cost-effective telecoms resources to assist in their transition to a digital economy. The Distance Learning Initiative of the ITU is based upon the provision of regional satellite-based communications services. The ITU’s programme seeks to ensure a rapid rise in literacy levels and aid sustainable development in rural communities. The lack of technological infrastructure in some regions often means that local populations have little or no access to information, medical services and educational facilities. The Distance Learning Initiative invites the governments of developing countries, ministries of education, ministries of telecommunications, public sector organisations and private sector entities to take advantage of the programme and deploy state-of-the-art satellite communication systems to service rural schools. The project also calls upon other international organisations to participate in the scheme, ensuring that universal access to information and communication technology applications and services becomes a reality and bridges the digital divide. Using satellite communications to deliver e-learning initiatives to schools that would otherwise have remained isolated offers a number of benefits. Students can learn how to use the Internet and then apply it to their own research; they can obtain information previously found only in the world’s leading libraries; and, finally, it is hoped they will use the Internet to apply for university courses. Teachers also benefit from access to the Internet. Using the Internet, they can deliver more exciting, more up-to-date, material to students than would have been possible using only textbooks. Working with rural communities in the Middle East, we have seen the results that are possible from the Distance Learning Initiative. Two schools in Lebanon, the Al-Ishraq School in Ainata and the Saint Joseph School in Ain Ebel, have been using satellite service to access the Internet because there is no appropriate terrestrial infrastructure available. Previously, teachers had to travel many miles to find the nearest library that could help them research topics for lessons. The Internet has changed the situation for both teachers and students, and both schools have reported improved student examination performance. We expect that schools and educational facilities in remote parts of India will obtain many of these same benefits by using satellite technology to support their academic programmes. Furthermore, the use of satellite facilities does not have to focus exclusively upon learning in an institutional setting. Students who are educated at home, of which there are very many in India, could also benefit from Internet access through satellite communications. They could, for instance, access the CDAC Digital e-library resource, conduct career research or even use the Internet to learn a new language. This use of satellites for learning does not have to stop with students. Rural communities as a whole can benefit from the information they can find on the Internet. Farmers can be educated about new crops, or about the diagnosis and treatment of pests and diseases. They can also share their latest thinking on animal husbandry, or learn about new equipment and techniques that will maximise the return they get from their farms. Online weather reports can help both farmers and fishermen. Satellite communications can therefore provide a range of services to help rural communities, from education to farming, and make a real difference to the lives of the people living in remote areas. The ITU’s Distance Learning Initiative relies on satellite communications systems that provide mobile services that are simple to set up and suitable for users not familiar with satellite communications or, indeed, high technology of any sort. Unlike other satellite services, such as, VSAT, the latest services are highly portable and easy to transport from one location to another. Such systems are ideal for use in regions with limited power sources and by users with limited budgets who are unlikely to be sending or receiving huge amounts of data. Current satellite solutions for use in remote regions need nothing more than a lightweight, notebook-sized, satellite IP modem, which provides ‘always on’ data service of 144kbit/s across a shared channel and an antenna. Users simply connect the modem to their PC–via Bluetooth, USB or Ethernet interfaces–and point the antenna in the direction of the satellite. It does not matter where the user is located, since today’s satellite systems cover an area of up to 100 countries. Commercial satellite services will soon be launched in India. We expect that projects such as the Distance Learning Initiative, or others of its type that take advantage of satellite technology, will be implemented and make a significant, lasting, difference to India’s rural communities. With this emerging technology, hope emerges too.