One of the biggest news coming out of the 7th India Mobile Congress has been the launch of Jio SpaceFiber by the leading Indian telecom service provider, Reliance Jio. Of course, those in this tight-knit space industry knew very well about the partnership between Jio and the Luxembourg-based SES Networks that was announced in 2022. But its demonstrative announcement at the India Mobile Congress, held at the recently-inaugurated Bharat Mandapam, is testimony to the potential convergence of new-age with the ancient Indian civilization thought of Antyodaya.
In the SES-Jio partnership, SES will provide its O3b and the currently under-deployment O3b mPOWER satellite constellations operating in the Middle Earth Orbit (MEO). O3b, which stands for ‘Other Three Billion’, has aimed to provide internet services to the three billion or so people living and working in rural and remote regions of the planet. O3b satellites claim to be cheaper and more reliable than the Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) constellations, as the prior operate only through 31 satellites, 20 from the O3b series built by the French Thales Alenia Space and 11 of the O3b mPOWER series built by US’s Boeing. The older O3b series has offered services to various telecom service providers, but none have come close to Jio, the world’s third-largest mobile network operator.
Since its deployment in 2022, India’s 5G connectivity has grown to 97% across urban conurbations. What remains a challenge, not only for India but for the world, is taking 5G to rural and remote regions of the planet. Utility companies, mining companies, oil and gas exploration companies, commercial shipping and tourism companies, and several thousand villages located in remote mountains, deserts, forests and on islands stand to benefit from the last-mile connectivity offered by space-based telecommunications and internet services.
In a report, recently published by the telecom sector insights company TransUnion CIBIL, it is said that 56% of new internet users in India will be only from rural regions and this tremendous digital penetration will happen only through the attainment of last-mile connectivity. A strong sense of market needs, and attractive and cost-effective packaging of services will be vital in bringing space-based internet services to India. This is something that both Jio and Airtel, which is currently a substantial stakeholder in Eutelsat OneWeb constellation, have sensed and are actively working on.
Of the world’s five largest telecom service providers, three are Chinese – China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom – and two – Jio and Airtel – are Indian. The customer-base of the two Indian telecom giants spans internationally in South Asian and African markets providing them excellent leverage for commercial deployment for last-mile connectivity.
Perhaps in the coming years, one may find Chinese and Indian telecom service providers competing in the Global South last-mile markets. For New Delhi, this competition should not remain merely in the geoeconomics realms; it needs to be moored into human philosophy. Why is that? Telecom networks are the nervous systems of the connected 21st-century world; our world that is likely undergoing a global order shift. As China builds its Belt and Road Initiative, it has vowed to use its segregated telecom networks to promote the communist philosophical concepts of ‘a human community beyond the narrow constraints of the nation-state.’ Such philosophies are likely to be communicated, maybe forcefully, through last-mile connectivity systems in various forms – politically-unilateral tele-education and entertainment or setting up e-governance, banking and financial mechanisms through digital walled gardens.
India will have to prepare to counter such unilateralism amidst the ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ thought it has professed on multilateral platforms. New Delhi will have to take its another ancient civilisational concept of ‘Antyodaya’ as it emerges as an essential conduit of global last-mile information channels. As India attains last-mile connectivity in India and serves nations of the Global South, it will have to ensure the harmonious rise and sustainable development of the last person of the society, leaving no one behind. Providing services to the last person through affordable and holistic tele-education and governance information channels, assisting in the attainment of sustainable development goals, ensuring One Health and Lifestyle for Sustainable Environment, providing robust disaster risk reduction, helping protect natural repositories, safeguarding food and medicine for all, could be made possible through the principles of Antyodaya. India is placed strategically at the crossroads of Global North and South. It is bound to collaborate with the Global North, as in the case of Airtel with Eutelsat and Jio with SES, on the technology development and deployment front. Whereas with the Global South, the same Airtel and Jio will be able to provide affordable and thoughtful downstream digital services to the nations of the Global South respecting their cultures, their autonomy and diversity. Indian telecom companies are therefore the nexus of India’s Digital Triangular Cooperation.
Space-based last-mile connectivity is essential to ‘Geoeconomic Antyodaya’ for attaining our domestic goals and amicably sharing our civilisational concepts with all nations. The Indian government may have thought about it but has not articulated it. This article only does the articulation for this uphill but doable task of humane deployment of emerging technologies in an era marred with hegemonic quarrel and isolationism.