Satellite telecom could have reduced casualties in Uttarakhand: Brijendra K Syngal

Satellite telecom could have reduced casualties in Uttarakhand, according to Brijendra K Syngal.

In this byline article, Brijendra K Syngal, former CMD VSNL, explains the importance of satellite communication in India.

Disasters or calamities, whether natural or humanity inflicted, strike unannounced. Once they strike, the damage and loss of human lives caused is unpredictable. The need of the hour is to provide connectivity between the affected areas and rescue agencies.

The two latest events, one natural and the other man made, have proved beyond doubt the inadequacies of connectivity resulting in avoidable loss of lives and infrastructure. There have been reports of lack of connectivity and it is about time the responsibility for this crisis is taken up by the relevant agency, according to Brijendra K Syngal, former CMD VSNL.

The recent devastation caused mayhem in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where the loudest cry for help could not find an answer.  The massacre, as has already been reported, in Chhattisgarh where twenty-seven people including political leaders and Government officials were brutally murdered by the Maoists took place in a communication black hole.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is tasked to handle emergency communications in India. However, time and time again the DoT has frustrated its citizenry by failing to provide connectivity in the hour of need, especially in the wake of natural disasters. These disasters arrived unexpectedly, wrecking havoc along their trail.

In an era where connectivity is supposed to be available before one can bat an eyelid, one wonders why so many stranded people complained of their inability to be in touch with their folks or vice versa. For the longest time, even relief managers were not able to connect either with their bases or areas where relief is required.

The answer lies in the dogma within the DoT, not to apply technology that suits a disaster, whether natural or man-made.  They are in a time warp of the licensing, permissions and quota Raj.  In this case too, the DoT turned a deaf ear to the need of connectivity via satellite communications.

The result is there for all to see in terms of lost lives and damaged infrastructure. There have been numerous press reports on the non-availability and non-functioning of Telecommunications facilities in the disaster struck areas. Hundreds (one report says, thousands) of precious lives have been lost at the last count and the numbers are mounting every day. The lack of connectivity has had a snowball effect, delaying the arrival of medical aid to the injured, food for the survivors and stalling rescue operations.

In hindsight, it would be matter of conjecture if lives of people could have been saved had the DOT got its act together and someone there had thought of Mobile Satellite Systems (MSS).This is another illustration of the apathy and couldn’t-care-less attitude of the mandarins of Department of Telecommunications.

In the two Himalayan regions as well as in Chattisgarh, local officials had no means to provide information, guide rescue operations and seek proper and timely assistance when they were required in times of grave crises. With the landline and mobile services thrown out of gear, there were no alternatives to connect.

The DoT, as also the Department of Space (DoS) has given a complete go by to satellite based connectivity.  What use is all this tall talk of connecting every Panchayat and village when in an emergency of this kind there is no connectivity at all? The reality is that inter-corporate turf protection promotes a set of services they provide, citizenry be damned.

The bane of our country is in these internecine corporate wars, with players pulling each other down like crabs in a box. The net result is pathetic and what is more pathetic is that this entire narrative of apathy and resultant disaster is not without precedence.

Be it the Kargil conflict, 26/11, or the cloud burst a few years ago, there have been numerous occasions when all communication facilities were in a meltdown and the need for reliable Mobile Satellite Services –MSS was manifested. Four years on, we are in standstill, stuck in planning stages. While most of the world has shifted its focus to satellite communications to deal with connectivity issues in times of natural disaster and human inflicted crises the situation in India remains stagnant.

India was one of the founding fathers of the Inmarsat providing mobile maritime satellite services which were introduced in mid 1980s. These services were earlier provided by VSNL and are now being provided by Tata Communications to a select few users in the country. These services were used for providing relief operation after the earthquake in Latur and in Gujarat after the 1998 cyclone and flood and the 2001 earthquake, amongst other places. In each of these places, the MSS services proved their efficacy.  There are any number of examples all around the world where MSS has played a very significant role.

In the footsteps of Inmarsat, there were quite a few systems which came into operations to reach out to areas where conventional connectivity still remains a challenge even today. It was hoped that with the advent of some new global MSS operator/s like Iridium, Globalstar, ICO and our home grown mobile systems like Devas system etc. the prices would come down along with increased choices of services, but that has not been the case. Inmarsat continues to be the leader and global provider of MSS including in India and the only Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) provider which saves lives at sea. Unfortunately, this system has also been given a quick burial in the aftermath of the privatization of VSNL and its takeover by the Tatas.

With the Tatas being indifferent towards providing the Inmarsat or any satellite based services and rising national security concerns, it was decided that BSNL would establish and operate any future Inmarsat Gateway in India, which would have full monitoring and interception capabilities, and if need be BSNL would be provided funding for this purpose. BSNL, DoT and Inmarsat have been engaged in numerous discussions since 2011, but the execution of the project is yet to see the light of day.

Inmarsat has agreed to provide all technology and equipment which could lead to the establishment of the Gateway in India. Inmarsat has also agreed to provide mobile satellite connectivity at rates which we have learnt are in the low single digit cents with a maximum of 10 cents per minute. In rupees it could be as low as Rs 3 and not more than Rs 10-12. (This has to be seen in the context that today Inmarsat services cost around Rs 40-60).

It was also agreed that technology transfer for the user equipment would also be passed on to bring down the costs as the new Inmarsat terminals have been developed by Sasken, an Indian company based in Bangalore.

Be that as it may, since then BSNL and DoT have been in a slug fest of paper exchanges with no headway being made to establish the Gateway which is not only depriving the country of much needed emergency services but also a loss to the country by paying much more for services which could be had for much cheaper prices.

ASLO READ: Brijendra K Syngal’s byline articles

It is also learnt that in 2011 various government departments alerted the Secretary, Ministry of Communications to the need of mobile satellite connectivity keeping in mind that the current Inmarsat services being provided by VSNL/Tata would cease by 2013.

It has been known that this discontinuation of MSS services by Tatas, would create a vacuum in the connectivity bouquet so essential for the defense and rescue needs of the country.

Does it not matter to the DOT, as a sole provider of the emergency connectivity, that lives are lost, our borders become vulnerable, due to their inaction under the garb of Government rules wherein one clarification is sought after another and so on and so forth? The saga continues and will continue if the mandarins in DOT and BSNL have their way.

It should be mentioned here that China engaged with Inmarsat around the same time as India. It is reliably learnt that the establishment of China’s Gateway is in full swing and will be in full operation to provide the new Inmarsat services. Whereas Indian could be caught in snafu, as the old services currently available in India are being provided by a satellite which has to be de-orbited as it has completed its life cycle latest by mid 2014 this could create a communication gap in some defense and areas needs served by these Inmarsat services.

It is time for a wake up call for the DoT and BSNL to rise up to the needs of the nation and the corporates to stop their lobbying to protect their turf. It is well known that the indigenous Satellite system was killed by the high and mighty within India and outside India for their vested interests, country be damned. What is now on the back burner for years must be put on the boil ASAP.

By Brijendra K Syngal (former CMD VSNL)
Views are Personal
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