A little over a year after Chandrayaan, India’s first moon mission, had taken off, a neat little story came to the newsroom of The New Indian Express: Next in railways, Wi-Fi on wheels. My then-colleague Hemanth C S, who had been tracking space and defence for the paper, was very excited about the story.
As the tech reporter, I was kicked about it too: a satellite broadband startup, Devas Multimedia, had developed the technology to give you Wi-Fi on trains, one of the main modes of transport in India.
This was going to be a game changer.
Or, so we thought. What followed over the next seven years was a disaster of epic proportions, one that saw both the startup and India’s space agency, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), dragged through allegations of corruption. The latest in the saga is a July 25,2016 ruling by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague against the Indian government in favour of Devas, which had leased transponders on two ISRO satellites for its satellite broadband plans.
Why is this epic?
The Indian railways serviced over eight billion passenger journeys in 2014-15. Back in 2010, most passengers didn’t have smartphones. The now ubiquitous 3G networks had been launched in India but were patchy at best.
If the Devas plan had worked, you’d have had millions of rail users with smartphones and internet not just today but five or six years ago. (With an average sale price of a smartphone hovering over $130, nearly 100 million smartphones were shipped in 2015, according to market research firm IDC.)
A Google-run initiative that took off recently is proof how Indian users take to the internet like fish to water. Over 2 million passengers use free Wi-Fi provided by Google every month at Indian railway stations. Their data consumption is also 15 times higher than what’s consumed on a cellular network, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai had said.
Considering the sluggish growth of broadband in the country and poor data access in non-urban areas, the Devas technology could have gone a long way in growing India’s internet economy. That the internet has a direct impact on a country’s progress is no secret. According to a report published in 2012 by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), the Internet and Mobile Association of India, and the Union government’s Department of IT, a 10% increase in internet penetration contributes to a 1.08% rise in the gross domestic product of India.
In case you scoff at the possibility of a state-run transport utility changing internet consumption patterns in India, don’t forget that India’s growing e-commerce market (estimated to grow to $119 bn by 2020), has much to thank the Indian Railways for. A whole generation of Indian users got used to online purchases thanks to the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation’s online ticketing website, irctc.co.in, as one of India’s early internet entrepreneurs, Deep Kalra, the founder & CEO of Makemytrip, told FactorDaily recently. Before Flipkart was born, or Amazon came to India, the country’s online buying was dominated by online ticket sales.
Who carries the can?
The senior management of Devas Multimedia called a hurried press conference on August 24, 2010 in Bengaluru to explain the company’s position. A month earlier, the deal, many years in the making, was revoked by ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix. To some of us there, the company made an impassioned plea: it had followed every rule in the book.
Kiran Karnik, then a director at Devas Multimedia, and Ramachandran Viswanathan, CEO and president of the company, haven’t answered my calls on the arbitration tribunal’s ruling yet. So that’s probably a story for another day.
But the July 25 ruling by The Hague international arbitration court against the Indian administration proves one thing: the fault lies entirely with the government. At the time, the Congress-led UPA-II government was mired in allegations of corruption (2G scam) and was probably in a hurry to find scapegoats. Spectrum had suddenly become a precious resource and no one in New Delhi wanted to be seen as gifting it away. See a nice explainer here.
As some publications have argued, India will need to have a national space law to clearly define dos and don’ts. Such a framework will decide if India’s nascent space startups will soar high. Or, slam into a wall like Devas, a startup that saw and bet on the future early.
Update: Edited for grammar and typos at 10.41 am on August 1, 2016.
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