India's recent launch of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket carrying five foreign satellites was heralded as a major step towards the modernisation and digitalisation of India's science and technology sector. The Prime Minister showered accolades on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Department of Space (DoS), declaring his vision of a Digital India in the years to come. In reality, its implementation is constricted by many factors, including in particular, the archaic Satellite Communication Policy 1997 and the norms framed under the Policy in 2000.
Considering the increasing importance, varied uses of satellites and technological advances in the field, one would have expected a comprehensive and adaptive policy. On the contrary, the Satcom (satellite communication) Policy is a minimalist and barebones document that has not been updated since its inception. The norms framed under the Policy only elaborate its scope, while emphasising the use and development of the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) network and preferential treatment to Indian satellites. Further, though the Policy and the norms seem to encourage and emphasise the development of satellite communication apparatus and infrastructure, private participation (including any form of foreign participation) and use of foreign satellites for domestic communication, is heavily restricted.
The Policy has long outlived its original purpose of serving as the foundation for developing the Indian satellite network in its early years. Making things more difficult and opaque is the administrative rigmarole and overlap created by a multiplicity of regulatory bodies such as the Department of Space, the ISRO, Antrix Corporation, the Telecom Department and the WPC (Wireless Planning and Coordination) Wing. Many private players like direct-to-home operators, internet service providers, e-commerce companies, and social networking sites seek to widen their reach and expedite delivery mechanisms by effective use of satellite networks, which have now become critical for their operations. Many of these companies are global and their sustainability in India is heavily dependent on use of communication techniques through satellites. Security concerns are paramount and public policy dictates that the resources should be used efficiently and allocated in a transparent and non-discriminatory and strictly commercial basis for private enterprises. However, lack of dynamism in law, restriction on foreign participation and use of foreign satellites, and the administrative overreach, create a discouraging situation in an area that in the normal course would have attracted a lot of investment.
Vijaya Sampath and Nikhil Singal