War on Maoists: satphones may not need DoT nod

War on Maoists: satphones may not need DoT nod

New Delhi: The government may allow paramilitary forces fighting Maoists in remote jungles in the country to buy satellite phones directly from phone makers, without the requisite clearance from the department of telecom (DoT).

Some of these areas do not have communication networks; others are simply off the grid.

The government is also considering asking state-owned telecom firm Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) to offer the satellite phone services for these paramilitary forces, said a senior official at DoT. “The home ministry would then reimburse BSNL for the cost they incur in offering the services," added this person, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media. The security agencies involved in discussions on the issue suggested that BSNL provide the service rather than a foreign service provider, the official said.

Interestingly, BSNL uses the same technology to offer fixed public phones in remote villages.

Satellite phones, made and sold by firms such as UK-based Inmarsat Plc, UAE-based Thuraya Telecommunications Co. and US-based Globalstar, Inc., have been around for at least 20 years, but their use in India is limited.

One reason for this is that even nine years after DoT put in place a policy for satellite telephony, there are no companies offering the service. Three companies, Iridium India Pvt. Ltd, ASC Enterprises Ltd and Shyam ACeS were given permission by DoT to start offering the service but are yet to do so.

These firms could not be reached for comment on the issue.

According to the DoT official, the policy itself comes with a fair number of conditions, largely because satellite phones have previously been used, and continue to be used by insurgents and terrorists in many parts of the world. One condition requires all phones be licensed by DoT. Another requires the gateway through which communication between the phone and the handset happens to be located on Indian soil. This will allow security agencies to listen in, when they want to.

Inmarsat, Thuraya and Globalstar applied for a licence to offer services in India, but were denied these because they do not have a gateway on Indian soil. The three firms have a chain of geostationary satellites orbiting the earth.

“The government’s conditions are too stringent for the services to be economically viable. The conditions are not investor-friendly," a regulatory expert said on condition of anonymity.

Inmarsat has since offered its services to the Indian Navy through Tata Communications Ltd.

“We are trying to get permission from the government to offer our services here in India. We already offer our services to maritime customers like the Indian Navy and the merchant navy firms," an executive with Inmarsat said, asking that he not be identified. “There is some discussion with the government on this but I cannot say anything more."

Apart from security considerations, satellite phone services also need to be licensed because they use the same resource mobile phone services do—radio waves or spectrum.

Only, instead of communicating with a tower, like mobile phones do, satellite phones communicate with a satellite. The satellite then beams the call down through a gateway, and through local land and mobile phone networks to the dialled number. A satellite phone can also call another satellite phone on the same network directly—the satellite just beams the call directly to the phone.

The army currently uses satellite phones in some remote areas such as Kargil, in Kashmir, where Bharat Electronics Labs provides the service using Insat satellites from Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation). However, Isro has run out of capacity and will need two or three more years to develop additional capacity, the DoT official said.

That and the absence of any private service providers is forcing the government to turn to BSNL which will offer the service through Inmarsat.