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Satellite Phones: What are they, and why is their use restricted in India?

Oct 29, 2022

Satellite Phones

Our today's edition of Current Affairs is here and it is on Satellite Phones. We will discuss what are Satellite phones and why is their use restricted in India?


The recent case of arrest of a senior executive of a Saudi Arabian oil company due to an unauthorized satellite phone under sections of the Indian Telegraph Act and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, has bought satellite phones into the news.

About Satellite Phone

  • Other names: It is also called satphone.
  • Launch: The first satellite phone was launched by Motorola in 1989. 
  • Working: 
    • It works by connecting to a telecommunications satellite in space. 
    • Instead of depending on a GSM network, they are tied to a satellite company. 
    • Garmin inReach, for instance, has a built-in satellite receiver that lets you send and receive SMS via the Iridium network. 
    • Satellite (or sat) phones usually cover most of the planet with fairly robust connectivity.
  • Difference between Satellite phones and Smartphones: 
    • Satellite phones are capable of receiving and making calls that even include the remotest parts be it the Himalayas or an uninhabited island in the Pacific. 
    • Satellite phones rely on satellites instead of cell phone towers.
    • Thuraya X5-Touch is a ruggedized Android-powered smartphone with support for GSM/LTE networks as well.
    • Satellite phones have an outer antenna system to catch signals, which makes them different in appearance from modern smartphones.
    • Satellite phones work in remote areas where there are no cell phone towers and therefore, no cellular connectivity. 
Note: Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Globalstar are satellite connectivity providers for Sat phones. 

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Illegality for Carrying a satellite Phone in India

  • In India, it's illegal to carry a satellite in India unless you have permission. 
  • Visitors to the country are specifically advised not to carry a satellite phone without permission. 
  • The restrictions on the possession and use of these phones were tightened after the Pakistani terrorists, in the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 used them to keep in touch with their Lashkar-e-Taiba handlers.

Relating Rules 

  • Section 6 of The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933: It's illegal to possess “any wireless telegraphy apparatus, other than a wireless transmitter, in contravention of the provisions of section 3 [of the Act]”. 
  • Section 3 of The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933: No person shall possess wireless telegraphy apparatus” without a license “save as provided by Section 4.
  • Section 4 of The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933: It allows the central government to make rules under the Act to: “exempt any person or any class of persons from the provisions of this Act either generally or subject to prescribed conditions, or in respect of specified wireless telegraphy apparatus”.
  • A notification on the website of the Department of Telecommunications says: “Satellite phones are permitted: 
    • With specific permission/ NOC from the Department of Telecommunications, Government of India; or
    • As provisioned by M/s BSNL in accordance with the license granted to M/s BSNL for provision and operation of satellite-based service using Gateway installed in India.”
  • Notifications posted on the websites of the Indian Embassy in several countries around the world specify that: 
    • Use of Thuraya/Iridium satellite phones is unauthorized/illegal in India,
    • Any passenger carrying satellite phone(s) via baggage is required to declare the same to Customs on arrival and produce permission for use from the concerned authority,
    • Any individual found to be in possession of an unauthorized satellite phone in India is liable to be prosecuted as per Indian law, 
    • All unauthorized sets found in the possession of the individual will be seized by Indian law enforcement agencies.

Flaws in Satellite Phones

  • For one, sat phones are much more expensive than regular cell phones. 
  • The talk time with these plans is limited, so using the phone for longer means shelling out more. 
  • There are a few well-known satellite connectivity providers. 
  • Each sat phone device works only with a specific provider i.e. a Thuraya phone will not work on the Iridium network.

News Source: The Indian Express

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