Twenty years after he first decided to enter the telecom space, Sunil Mittal is at the cusp of yet another game-changing initiative. This time Mittal has acquired a minority stake in a global satellite-based communication project called OneWeb, which aims to ensure Internet access in even the remotest corners.

Speaking to BusinessLine over the phone from London, Mittal said: “With terrestrial networks you can cover 70-80 per cent of the population. There is no traditional telecom network, fixed or wireless, that can cover the last 15-20 per cent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Digital India requires that every individual, howsoever poor, should get access to broadband and the only way to do that is through satellite access.”

Hi-tech connect The new communications network will initially have a constellation of 648 Low Earth Orbit satellites. This will enable deployment of low-cost terminals, costing $100-200, that will act like a base station offering internet coverage across a radius of a few hundred metres.

Consumers can access services using normal phones. Mittal said that though Airtel will be the preferred partner in India, the satellite system will be open to other operators who want connectivity in uncovered areas. “If you put one of these boxes, powered by solar panels, on top of a school building, for example, the entire village could get Internet access,” said Mittal.

Mittal has invested in the new entity through Bharti Enterprises, the parent company of Airtel. The initiative has been launched with an initial funding of $500 million from a number of global players, including Virgin Group, Airbus Group, The Coca-Cola Company, Intelsat and Grupo Salinas. The project is expected to go live in 2019.

The investment is part of Mittal’s gameplan to move into sectors that have a social impact. Earlier this week, he announced a deal with Japan’s SoftBank and Taiwan’s Foxconn to venture into the renewable energy space. Before that Mittal had started a project to provide education to the underprivileged.

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