Startup ecosystem powered by Internet access is transforming our lives in many different ways. We go to the internet to buy, sell, procure services, do financial transaction, get information and most importantly to communicate to each other. But, the rural India, which accounts for more than 68% of India’s population, is out of sync with this changing face of commerce, communication, lifestyle and education. Astrome Technologies, an Indian space technology company is leveraging on cutting edge satellite technology to provide high speed, location free internet. By doing this, Astrome is not just providing an innovative, high tech, solution to a practical problem – it is also opening the doors for a potential transformation in the lives of people who were so far denied access to the latest in technology. Astrome’s first set of satellites are scheduled to take off in 2018.
Internet has been a great enabler of social transformation. The Broadband Commission, set up by the United Nations Organisation, notes that “broadband connectivity is a vital enabler of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection”. Though the penetration rates are growing rapidly, as on November 30, 2015, more than half of the world population were not connected to the internet. India, despite having 375 million internet users, has the challenging task of connecting the other 70% of the country’s population, a majority of which resides in semi-urban and rural areas. The standard modes of service, using underground optical cables or improving mobile network coverage, are not the best options to bridge this gap.
Terrestrial internet requires a lot of infrastructure like laying a lot of cables and towers etc. to reach all locations and obtaining the necessary “right of way” clearance to install the cable. This is not only slow and problematic, but quite expensive too. For example, it costs about US $3000 to lay optical fibre cable for one kilometer in India. The cost to cover a square kilometer for space solutions vary between $3 to $6 as compared to ground solutions that incur at least $3000 to cover the same area using cable and towers. However, ground technology brings much higher capacity in a concentrated fashion whereas space solutions that are good for distributing capacity to a large area. Thus, ground technology solutions are a good business case for urban areas and space technology a good business case for rural and semi-urban areas.
Astrome’s space solution is to have a few satellites in space very close to the Earth (Low-Earth Orbit) which act as “floating routers”. Subscribers on ground can get high speed internet through an antenna on the rooftop, and a box inside their home which is very similar to the DTH television service setup.
Over the next few years, the company wants to build a constellation of hundred microsatellites in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Each satellite of Astrome, can support a bandwidth of 100 gigabytes per second, both upload and download (1:1) – this means that the users on earth can expect up to 50 megabytes per second for home users and 400 megabytes per second for business users. The beauty is that this speed doesn’t depend on the geographical location of the user: people accessing from a crowded city and a remote hamlet in the Himalaya get the same deal.
Chart 1 compares the cost of covering 1 square kilometer by different upcoming ground and space technology solutions. Since the space solutions do not require the expensive ground infrastructure, the cost of providing internet to any semi-urban and rural location is at least hundred times lower than that in terrestrial technology. It can seen from the chart that Astrome’s solution is competitive in cost per square kilometer as compared to other space players. Viasat-3 constellation which is a GEO constellation with 3 satellites is expected to have comparable cost as us. However, the high placement of satellite for more coverage comes at the cost of high communication latency which lowers the quality of internet service. A typical round-trip delay to GEO can be anywhere around 250ms whereas LEO provide fibre-like latency of about 10ms.
Chart 1: Cost (in USD) per km2 of terrestrial and space based internet service
Chart 2 compares the cost per Mbps incurred by the ground and space solutions. Unlike SpaceX, and OneWeb and ViaSat, Astrome’s satellites will operate in the millimeter region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This enables significantly higher capacity per satellite as compared to Ku and Ka band satellites that results in 10 times reduction in cost per Mbps (See Chart 2). In fact, Astrome will incur about 3-4 times lower cost per Mbps than even terrestrial solutions such as Reliance Jio. The company will focus on only South Asia and South-east Asia in the beginning, bringing a total distributed capacity of 10 Tbps over the globe.
Chart 2: Cost (in USD) per Mbps of Terrestrial and Space comparison: Terrestrial vs Astrome satellite based internet service
India’s space program is a grand example of how science and technology can improve the quality of life of the masses. It’s indeed a nice coincidence that Astrome, an ambitious company planning to use space technology to provide location-free high speed internet, is being incubated at IISc, a place where the foundations for the Indian space program were laid in the 1950s.