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October 10, 1997


The Village Voice

Rural India makes a hyperjump into
the Space Age of satellite phones.

Sharat Pradhan in Sirauli-Gauspur

Last week, Communications Minister Beni Prasad Verma dedicated the first satellite-based village public telephone to the nation here, in his home-village, about 70 kilometres from the Uttar Pradesh capital of Lucknow.

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Verma told the gathering that four other similar systems were being commissioned in different parts of the country on that very day. These were at Chittauni in eastern UP, Seluru in Andhra Pradesh and Tenga and Keying in Assam.

Inmarsat, a telecommunications consortium comprising 81 countries, is providing the Mini-M satellite phone service for the project. It is expected to reach phones to another 95 villages in the next six months. This is the first time that satellite phones are being used to link up villages.

Verma said "The Department of Telecommunications' Village Public Telephone programme is an extension of its social commitment to providing telecommunications in remote and inaccessible villages of India."

He pointed out how such a system was most adaptable to rural India. "You neither need electricity, nor telephone lines. All you require is an instrument that can be carried in a shoulder bag to any remote corner. It has a two to three-hour battery backup." However, to ensure uninterrupted working of the system, DoT has attached the village public telephones, or VPTs, to a solar energy backup.

The minister said "An MoU was signed between DoT and Inmarsat in April 1997 to explore the possibility of providing satellite-based phones in remote and inaccessible areas."

Verma claimed that "With the launch of this service in five Indian villages today, I can confidently say that now we have the potential to link each and every Indian village with public telephones."

He drew attention to the problems that lack of communication facilities brought to villages. "Sometimes information of natural calamities in remote villages does not reach the authorities. This new technology will bring an end to such woes," he hoped.

A large gathering of enthusiastic villagers had collected at the spot where the satellite phone was installed. Most were completely amazed when they were told what the new facility could do for them. "This is like the wireless with which we can talk anywhere," Ram Prasad, a poor farmer form a nearby hamlet, explained knowingly. Mehi Lal, another villager, was happy that the calls would not cost much.

Inmarsat Executive Vice-President George Novelli, who had accompanied the minister, claimed "Inmarsat's satellite-based telecommunication systems is capable of overcoming all difficulties associated with land-lines like installation over difficult terrain and across long distances."

"The Inmarsat system requires less forward investment than land-line or cellular alternatives. It also requires much less time to implement," he pointed out.

The Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited's land-earth station at Arvi, near Pune, will provide the link between the Inmarsat satellite located over the Indian Ocean and the Mini-M terminal at the subscriber site.

VSNL has been associated with Inmarsat since 1979 and its Arvi station provides all types of Inmarsat services in the Indian Ocean region.

The satellite consortium also plans to introduce 20 more Mini-M terminals on trains in the country, in addition to the eight such operational terminals on some superfast express trains like the Delhi-Bombay Rajdhani Express.

Novelli said "What we are looking at here is a truly global mobile office. The applications are just great; the VPT is just one of them."

The VSNL is a partner in the $380 million consortium which has 11 geostationary satellites covering Earth's land, as well as sea, mass.

The VPT, which comprises a stand-alone telephone unit and an antenna, costs about Rs 250,000 per set. The initial five village units have been imported from Norway. The Mini-M terminal is about the size of a standard laptop computer.

Globally, there were some 69,000 Inmarsat terminals operational at the beginning of this year. The consortium expects to add some 30,000 terminals this year, of which 17,000 are expected to be in the Mini-M series.

Inmarsat, which has 75 per cent of its revenues accruing from maritime clients, does not plan to enter into the competitive hand-held satellite phone market dominated by low-Earth orbit satellites like in the Iridium project of the Teledesic consortium.

"That is a different market altogether in which we anyway have a presence with a 10 per cent equity in ICO (a LEO consortium)," Novelli said.

Inmarsat is targeting businesses like flight-deck communications; maritime communications; the principal markets of merchant shipping, fisheries and navies, land transport, media and agencies like peace-keeping forces, Red Cross and the United Nations.

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