Satellite phones

Source: By The Indian Express

A senior executive of Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco spent several days in prison in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand after he was arrested by police in July with an unauthorised satellite phone. He was released on 27 July 2022 after paying a fine of Rs 1,000, police said.

What’s wrong with carrying a satellite phone?

It’s not legal to carry one in India unless you have permission. Visitors to the country are specifically advised not to carry a satellite phone without permission. Restrictions on the possession and use of these phones were tightened after the Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai in November 2008 used these devices to keep in touch with their Lashkar-e-Taiba handlers.

Narendra Singh Rawat, station house officer of Govind Ghat police station in Chamoli said the executive, Fergus MacLeod, was arrested under sections of the Indian Telegraph Act and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act.

What do these rules say?

Section 6 of The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 makes it 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 says “no person shall possess wireless telegraphy apparatus” without a licence “save as provided by Section 4”.

Section 4 of the Act 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: (i) With specific permission/ NOC from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India; or (ii) As provisioned by M/s BSNL in accordance with 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”, and that “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.”

Also, the notifications say, “any individual found to be in possession of an unauthorized satellite phone in India is liable to be prosecuted as per Indian law, and all unauthorized sets found in possession of the individual will be seized by Indian law enforcement agencies”.

Therefore, “visitors and tourists traveling to India are advised to comply with Indian laws and not bring in or use satellite phones in India without obtaining specific permission from the concerned authorities.”

How does a satellite phone work?

Satellite connectivity relies on satellites — rather than cell phone towers, which provide connectivity to regular cell phones. Satellite phones work in remote areas where there are no cell phone towers and therefore, no cellular connectivity. Satellite (or sat) phones usually cover most of the planet with fairly robust connectivity.

Can you get a sat phone for yourself?

Theoretically, yes, as long as they are allowed by law, and the requisite permissions have been obtained. If you need to use a satellite phone inside the country, you must purchase it in India from an authorised distributor. But then, having one would make sense only if you really need one.

For one, sat phones are much more expensive than regular cell phones. The device may cost around $1,000 or more, and monthly/yearly plans can cost hundreds of dollars each year. The talk-time with these plans is limited, so using the phone for longer means shelling out more. People and companies who need these phones often choose to rent them — say, for the duration of their stay in a remote location during a vacation.

There are a few well known satellite connectivity providers. These are Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya and Globalstar. Each sat phone device works only with a specific provider — which means a Thuraya phone will not work on the Iridium network.