Nepal's rugged terrain, its lack of roads and telephones in remote areas and the importance of adventure tourism make this a country ideal for satellite phones.
So, you would think the government would be enthusiastic about making it as easy as possible for people to get hold of the instruments, and encourage competition so prices come down. Not so. Just as with everything else, the government seems to be unable to decide.
The unofficial explanation for the delay in licensing satellite phones, it is whispered, is that the government doesn't want it to get into the hands of the Maoists. But with the ceasefire, the huge potential in rural telecommunications and the tourism industry, the delay is now getting difficult to defend.
"It's been more than one year since we applied for the license and we are still waiting," says Anudan Jung Rana of Constellation (pic, right), a service provider in Nepal for Thuraya satellite phones. Rana was one of several private companies that applied for the license last year as soon as the government opened the telecom sector for a number of value-added services.
The state-owned monopoly, Nepal Telecommunication Corporation, is preoccupied with meeting the growing demand for cellular phones, but officials say a decision on satellite phone licenses will be taken soon. "We have already prepared guidelines and only the final decision is to be made," Kailash Neupane of the regulatory Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) told us.
The Ministry of Information and Communications is said to have already allotted the frequency for satellite phones, and NTA has fixed the license fee at Rs 1.5 million which the service provider will have to renew every five years by paying Rs 1.4 million. Service providers are a bit worried about the high license fee, but think the market is big enough for them to launch the service.
"Everything is set, all we need is the license," says Rana. Potential customers include trekking agencies, mountaineering expeditions, the Royal Nepali Army, and Kathmandu-based aid agencies.
International mountaineering expedition teams in Nepal often bring in satellite phones, but have to pay a deposit of $3,000 on each set. The restrictions and delays on satellite phones have encouraged smuggling of the machines and there are said to be at least 300 satellite phones in use in Nepal at present that have pre-paid SIM cards from Thai and Filipino companies. Many more satellite handsets with SIM cards are smuggled into India through Nepal, one source told us.
With technological advances, satellite phones now look like cellular phones and work by sending signals to a swarm of low-orbit communication satellites. Calls can be made from a satellite phone to another satellite phone anywhere in the world, and can patch to domestic telecom networks for calls to fixed and mobile connections. The handsets come with dual mode satellite and GSM, so it can be used as an ordinary cellular phone when there is a signal. Unlike cellular phones, a satellite phone will work anywhere in the world, and is especially applicable in wilderness areas.
But what about cost? Service providers say that the GMPCS (Global Mobile Personal Communications via Satellite) technology has made satellite telephony handy and cheap. A handset would cost Rs 80,000 with pre-paid SIM cards and an international call would cost $0.72-1.35. Handset to handset costs are 50 cents per minute. In comparison, making a call on the NTC fixed line to the United States costs Rs 75 per minute with 26.5 percent tax.
Satellite phones also have a built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) in order to find the user's precise location. This aspect would also be useful for mountaineering groups, and for search and rescue in the Himalaya. "We conduct an average of 100 rescue operations every year. Satellite phones would make our lives much easier," says Prakash Adhikari of the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA).