Mukesh Ambani, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are betting on satellite broadband to bring the internet to rural India

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But Sayi knew she couldn’t stay in one place for long due to the shaky mobile internet connection she relied on for her education as classes in Dunge Village and across India moved online when COVID- 19 hit in March 2020.

“Sometimes the network is good, sometimes it’s not good: she has to move from room to room, from corner to corner, and even go out,” said the grandmother of Sayi, Chandrakamalkar Gharat, to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two years later, Sayi is back in school, but staying online all day remains a challenge for her and tens of millions of other poorly connected people in rural India, where the digital divide is hampering the education, livelihoods and access to health care.

“It’s very difficult for her – sometimes we wonder if it’s worth it,” Gharat said.

There are currently more than 800 million internet subscribers in the country of 1.3 billion people, according to the telecommunications regulator (TRAI). Yet in rural India, only about 38% of the population is connected to the Internet.

The government has made universal broadband a priority under its Digital India program to improve governance through technology, with projects such as the Bharat Net rural broadband project aiming to connect around 650,000 villages across the country.

But digital inclusion “continues to remain a distant reality for most rural parts of India”, marred by delays in implementation, and a lack of access and digital literacy, according to a Council report Indian Research for International Economic Relations (ICRIER), a policy think tank.

This may now change due to recent policy moves, including easier approvals for satellite broadband network deployments and the impending launch of satellite broadband from India’s Bharti Airtel and Jio platforms, Starlink from India. Elon Musk and others.

“With the saturation of urban markets, service providers are keen to increase the number of rural subscribers,” said Mansi Kedia, ICRIER member and telecommunications and internet expert.

“But rural connectivity should go beyond the dominant technology – fiber optics and mobile communications. The use case for satellite broadband is strongest in rural areas – it can help achieve connectivity at much lower costs,” she said.

CHEAP MOBILE DATA

The United Nations declared in 2016 that internet access is a human right, adding a clause to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, including for women, girls and people affected by the digital divide.

India was among several countries that opposed the amendment at the time, and the country has among the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world.

It also offers one of the lowest mobile data rates in the world, allowing mobile wireless to make up the majority of the country’s 834 million Internet subscribers. Only about 24 million subscribers have a fixed Internet connection.

In addition to government programs, private sector and philanthropic initiatives have also helped boost last-mile connectivity and increase digital literacy in rural areas.

“Big telecoms will only go to rural areas if it makes economic sense because it’s more expensive to build infrastructure, and that’s for customers with less ability to pay,” said Michael Ginguld. , director of AirJaldi, which offers affordable services. networks in rural and semi-urban areas in India.

“The deeper you got into rural areas, the less demand there was – they can watch a show or a movie on their phone. But that’s changing, and COVID has accelerated that change, with demand for better connectivity to access education or health care,” he said.

AirJaldi, which has partnered with Google, Facebook and Microsoft on internet projects, reaches over 200,000 users in around 1,500 villages in India, some of whom previously had no mobile connectivity.

CLIMB TREES

Globally, three-quarters of students who cannot access distance learning come from rural areas or poor households, according to the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF).

During the COVID-19 shutdowns, Indian media reported students and teachers in villages climbing trees or climbing hills in an attempt to connect.

Such anecdotes could soon be a thing of the past.

Earlier this year, OneWeb and Hughes Communications India – a joint venture with Bharti Airtel – said it had reached an agreement to bring satellite broadband services to low Earth orbit (LEO), “particularly in areas beyond the reach of fiber connectivity”.

Last month, Jio Platforms – owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani – announced it would launch satellite broadband services in India with Luxembourg telecommunications company SES, using geostationary and medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites.

Musk’s Starlink, which is awaiting its license in India, has also launched about 2,000 of its planned 42,000 LEO satellites to deliver internet across the world. Another potential entrant is Amazon’s Kuiper project.

“The fixed costs of satellite broadband are high, but it has a lower implementation cost for wider geographic coverage and lower population density, compared to technologies such as fiber optic cable,” Kedia said.

Residents of the village of Sittlingi in southern India, who once traveled to another village about 20 km (12 miles) away to connect, could not afford to wait for satellite broadband.

Nonprofits Digital Empowerment Foundation and Internet Society stepped in during the pandemic and established a stable internet connection in the village using free, unlicensed spectrum.

This means that students have been able to resume classes, farmers have been able to sell their products online and an indigenous crafts center has found new buyers, said Lalitha Regi, director of Porgai, the handicrafts center .

“It was like a party – getting connectivity,” she said.

This story was published from a news feed with no text edits. Only the title has been changed.

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