Hughes – Delivering Innovations in Broadband Connectivity, the Satellite Way


Over the past many years, Hughes Communications has carved a niche for itself when it comes to delivering innovative broadband services with the help of satellite connectivity.

Shivaji Chaterjee, Senior Vice President and Business Head for Enterprise Business, Hughes Communication India Limited interacts with Zia Askari from about the company’s key priorities and future plans.

Tell us something about your key priorities that you have today, Hughes as an organization?

Globally we have a mandate to be the leading broadband satellite service provider in the world and since the last 10-15 years we have been really going down that path. In India, we definitely see that vision translating into a big opportunity because most of the terrestrial networks are very limited to the major cities and beyond that its wireless – either through satellite or mobile which is really providing connectivity.

Further, because of this lack of good terrestrial telecom infrastructure in India, satellite has always played a big role, one such thing is providing reliability and that’s where if you look at the success of DTH it’s purely that. It provides the quality satellite access anywhere in the county and we are seeking to replicate what DTH is done to television, satellite can do to broadband by getting that quality of broadband access equally of good quality anywhere in the country.

This is possible if we get the right kind of support in terms of satellite capacity and regulations. This transformation is happening all over the world. India which we think is the country of the biggest opportunity probably because of this supply shortage or regulatory bottlenecks have not been able to capitalize on this.

The second obvious thing is that the government since many years has been looking to venture into the world of e-governance trying to digitally enable every element of the government internal working and government to citizen interface. In the Congress government it was called the National E Governance Plan or NEGP, the NDA government calls it Digital India but it’s a kind of translation of the same initiative.

And for us that has really provided a whole plethora of activities and opportunities from connecting and automating each type of government user to even going to the government to citizen interfaces, to building broadband, highways to connecting Gram Panchayats, for village e governance, enabling the National Rural Health Mission, the NREGA program for employment guarantee and much more.

So there are lot of applications, they all need connectivity, the number of diverse government offices and points of interface which are not automated and connected are huge and satellite is a very simple way of going about and doing it, so we think that’s another key focus which we are doing and there are many, many projects which we are doing with the government in doing this automation.

Can you share details about how you are driving connectivity in the Oil retail segment?

One of the projects which we think is very interesting is the Oil Retail Automation. Yes, we have huge number of petrol pumps in India and they used to work in a very traditional way. Things weren’t automated. Now the whole industry is changing. There was a kind of artificial sealing on the rates and the government is to bear the gap and subsidy.

Then diesel was subsidized in India. But since last few years the government has removed all subsidies. So now it’s a free market pricing. More than that now the government has mandated every day- the price will change. So now with that kind of thing you need a tremendous amount of automation to control.

Secondly, the kind of control and efficiency you need to build in the supply chain is very high that is you need to monitor what’s the oil tank level. Is the sales and oil tank in same? Is the degree of petrol and diesel, the quality, is that good enough? When you do a credit card swipe is it getting automatically connected in a secured way. When you do fleet cards and loyalty and truck tracking, so there are a lot of applications which are there and the government has basically asked all the petrol pumps to get automated which are to run retail automation and have a network.

As a result, today we at Hughes, are doing projects worth about 9000 sites and in this next I will say 4 to 5 months there are RFP’s being awarded for 30,000 sites. So we feel that as an industry about 40,000 petrol pumps are going to get VSAT connectivity within a period of 18 months.

In the space of satellite broadband Hughes has been a very important player driving a lot of innovation. So today when you look at this space what are some the key trends that stand out?

I think any data is now broadband. So the trend in a way is that everybody needs connectivity and everyone wants higher and higher bandwidth and everyone wants lower and lower downtime. Today you can’t have any downtime of may be even your internet at home, so everything has become critical and vital because the internet has become a means to get access to services, access to information.

The mobile phone has become ten products of ours into one and if that is not there you are kind of handicapped. If I take you out from your phone for one hour, you will feel out of place because there are so many other things even the time it probably tells you what it is.

So now from that point of view I think the trends are still the same that everybody wants connectivity, everybody wants no downtime and everybody wants higher bandwidth and I think that’s the macro trend. Within this everybody obviously the space of what is getting connected is increasing and increasing. If you look at the average consumer, the means of internet is not the PC, but it’s the mobile phone.

Can you detail out the work you have been doing in the cellular backhaul space especially considering the tremendous growth of mobile subscribers in the last few years?

We at Hughes are doing a lot of work in the cellular backhaul space. For Reliance Jio, we are doing a big project where we are connecting various parts of the country which their fiber network is not able to go to. We have setup two teleports for them in Mumbai and Nagpur and we are providing that kind of connectivity for backhaul.

The technology in fact goes beyond 100-200 mbps per backhaul. Also, with satellite, it’s a virtual pool of bandwidth so you don’t need to dedicate, you may start with 10 megabit. If there’s a need you can keep it, if there is no need it’s used by somebody else on demand. So that’s the good part.

So definitely we feel one trend is not just broadband directly by a dish on the roof but broadband through backhaul which can then service a community either it could be a mobile LTE 2G, 3G service or it could be Wi-Fi.

What are your views on Satellite trials being conducted under BharatNet. Are you participating there?

Yes, satellite has got recently selected for 6000-7000 sites of BharatNet. For the first trial, they have decided to use satellite and the 1500 sites are under roll out in the first phase and I think they will realize the value of satellite and this 6000-7000 grant that they have given will easily go to may be 40000-50000.

So the first 1500 are being done by Hughes. There is an RFP floated for the next 5000 that just came out day before by Bharat Broadband.

I think that’s the trend for getting into a remote access and making it affordable for them not to do anything different, for them to still use their mobile phone either on Wi-Fi or satellite and get access to service. So that’s definitely one of the things which is there. Another exciting I will say hope it becomes a trend is Wi-Fi on the planes.

Wi-Fi on the planes has been India’s dream? What’s your view?

I think only India is lagging behind and there was always a big demand by DGCA to do it. Today, most of the planes when you travel outside India as soon as it crosses the Indian Geography they turn on the Wi-Fi. So, the planes are equipped. So, firstly it’s the foreign lines are already equipped, so the minute this gets allowed they can provide the service in India and secondly the domestic airlines obviously with the regulation not being there are not equipped, but I think that will definitely follow the minute one of the airlines goes for it.

If you are a business traveler and you have to choose, you will definitely choose an airline which has Wi-Fi than doesn’t have Wi-Fi. TRAI did come out with the regulation or recommendation for the regulation two months back and DOT is going to come out with it within the next three weeks. So after that it’s all system go, the way the regulation is written it says if you have a VSAT license you can use your existing satellite, existing hub. So the good part is it should all happen very fast and I think the foreign airlines because they are already equipped to be the first to go.

How do you plan on supporting In-flight connectivity (IFC) in India? What will be your role in this enabling in-flight connectivity?

With different airlines we are doing different things. Definitely our role with everyone is going to be providing the internet service. So the equipment on board is going to be Hughes’s which connects on satellite- it’s a specialized equipment which is FAS certified or DGCA certified for aero worthiness because the challenge when you are flying at that speed is the dish has to continuously track with the satellite. It’s not like a normal static, it’s going at 100 km an hour so you need to provide us stable service, then obviously the dish can’t be this kind of dish, it will be flat, so the dish is flat. So the VSAT dish is just a flat dish. It just comes on the roof of the plane. So those are the special technologies which we have.

We have the solutions, we will have the bandwidth service, we will provide the hub and we will have the lawful interception which the government wants to have it. We will have the whole service; obviously we are expecting the marketing of the service to be done by the airline.

Is there any airline where you have provided the service outside India?

Yes there are many such airlines. I think every airline which comes in now has a Wi-Fi connectivity and that’s all on satellite. So that is kind of there. With Indian Airlines, we expect the full service airlines like Jet and Air India and Vistara to be the early adopters and then we think Indigo and SpiceJet to follow. Jet already does a Wi-Fi streaming today on all their planes. But, you can’t browse, because the regulation is not here.

Satellite broadband has consistently faced many regulatory challenges? So what is the situation today and what are some of the challenges that you see should be solved at least by the government side?

I think the biggest point is that most satellites traditionally were aimed for broadcast industry. So they have a footprint over the country like a TV channel, everybody gets it. All cable operators get it on their head-end, they connect to the homes on cable. That’s how the satellite were designed. Then high throughput satellites came which started mimicking a cellular technology so instead of one beam they started making spot beams like.

By reusing the frequency exactly what cellular technology does. Each cellular operator gets 20-30 MHz which is nothing. Today, we run a service for SME’s – we charge them about 5 to 7 thousand rupees a month and we give them a 512 kbps service. Now if you compare with what a Reliance Jio is offering, they probably offer a 2 to 4 Mbps service you have to look at it in general and they hardly charge few hundred rupees a month.

Here we are charging few thousand and giving them less the speed. Only when it’s very reliable and that’s the key factor.

There are satellites over India which are capable like this but I think the Department of Space has gone into a ‘be Indian, use Indian’ kind of approach and they want to promote only Indian satellites. Now India definitely has caught up in broadcast satellites over the years, but in high throughput satellites we are probably couple of generations behind and if we look at the affordability in India it’s the opposite.

In US, when we run the service, we are able to charge about $60 a month and $60 a month is about 4000 rupees and we provide a 5 to 10 Mbps service. In India if we are going to offer a 4000 service it’s not going to work, here service in India needs to be under 1000 rupees for sure.

So, and if you go into the remote areas, they will demand for even lower prices. So when you are talking of those rates then it’s going to be very difficult when price of the capacity is higher and the spending power is lower.

We have two challenges in India – that’s what I think the government needs to realize that in order to enable this for the masses, if you want to make broadband penetration happen on mass scale, you have to promote the right technologies. Unless we make capacity available freely and cheaply, you are not going to be able to provide a service which is viable and can have a mass adoption and if you don’t have a mass adoption then what’s the fun, you are not doing the transformation. So, we really believe satellite can do big transformation here.

In US we have 10 Lakh consumer homes connected on satellite and US is the probably the most wired country in the world. So in India I think that can go from 10 Lakhs in India it can be 10 crore. But you need to provide a viable service and allow that technologies to come. So if you ask me the biggest regulation should be to be open skies, permit any satellite which is coordinated and agreed by Department of Space but to commercially transact with the Indian Service Providers so that you can actually get a good service.

Unless you allow an open market how will you get innovation? Our software industry grew and innovatively grew, our BPO industry grew because there was little regulation. So if you started telling a BPO you can do this kind of outsourcing and you cannot do this kind of outsourcing, would the BPO industry have grown or IT service industry had grown? I think that’s what has to be understood that we have to make it open, we have to allow innovation and if there are certain tenants of security or control they can be at right place and governance for that.

So, I will say that’s the biggest change needed to bring in capacity, to allow innovation and to bring what’s happening around the world here and the government also has always been this kind of NDA government has always been one where they want to see this kind of technology in action.

It’s been a very forward looking government but somewhere I think in this space of Satcom and Space Communication it’s become like that.

Innovation has been a big focus for Hughes? What are some of the big innovations that we can expect to see from Hughes in the coming months?

Innovation is in everything we do. As a service company in India, innovations were about service and operations. On a global level Hughes has lot of patents and there is lot of technology innovation which is there. Enabling these new markets whether it’s in education or healthcare or backhauling or in-flight connectivity or oil retail automation or digital cinema transformation, these are all great examples of innovation in action which make the difference.

And that’s what I think one of the biggest areas we have innovated is try to use technology and use a cost structure which provides a high value at a low cost and that I think keeps you connected and it keeps also customers connected with you and it reduces your churn. So that’s what our philosophy is always been- charge low, make it affordable and then you will get a bigger market. I think one of the biggest innovative projects Hughes is working globally and applicable to India is OneWeb.