There’s a new spatial energy coursing through the ground networks. Scores of small satellites are being launched into orbits close to the earth, adding to what Sunil Bharti Mittal likes to call a “telecoms network in space”. Mittal, the Indian telecom magnate, has become a satellite evangelist over the last 12 months.

It’s, therefore, not hard to guess what he’d say in his keynote address at the flagship satellite industry event in Maryland, US, on Wednesday. Since July 2020, Mittal, the promoter of India’s second largest telco, Bharti Airtel, has invested US$1 billion of his personal wealth in becoming the largest shareholder and rescuer of OneWeb.

With an aim to launch a constellation of 648 satellites in Low Earth Orbits (LEO), OneWeb plans to start streaming broadband from space by mid-2022. It needs country licenses, market access, and customer contracts well before that to ensure a return on its massive investments. Unlike GEO GEO Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit A GEO satellite appears to be located at a fixed point in space when viewed from the earth's surface. Satellites located in geosynchronous orbit move in time with the rotation of the earth. Geostationary satellites are located 22,237 miles above the earth's surface. or MEO MEO Medium Earth orbit A medium Earth orbit is an Earth-centred orbit with an altitude above a low Earth orbit and below a high Earth orbit – between 2,000 km and 35,786 km above sea level. satellites, LEO satellites have a shorter 5-year life span, and OneWeb—or, for that matter, American SpaceX’s Starlink—needs to generate revenues from the moment satellites go live. As executive chairman of OneWeb, Mittal, 63, has taken it upon himself to get “global market access” for the company.

Partly thanks to him, the implementation of India’s dormant telecom policy, which was rechristened to the National Digital Communications Policy and notified in 2018, has kicked into high gear. The hockey stick graph (below) shows Mittal is in a hurry, and Indian regulators are keeping pace. Bharti Enterprises applied for licences in June, by early August it had a Letter of Intent from the Department of Telecom (DoT). The company will soon get down to building gateways on the ground, which would act as data exchanges between satellites and the internet.

If one mostly saw a miffed Mittal in the last few years as telecom went through a brutal price war unleashed by Reliance Jio, today, a resurgent Mittal isn’t tiring of doing interviews and speaking about satellite connectivity.

At the virtual 25th anniversary celebration of mobile telephony last year, Reliance Jio promoter Mukesh Ambani extolled the Prime Minister’s Digital India mission and asked for “2G to be made part of history”, whereas a dour-looking Mittal asked for rationalisation of telecom levies.


Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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