Satellite communication is grabbing headlines in India — and rightly so, as the technology promises to make the Internet truly accessible in the country.
The buzz started in September when Elon Musk tweeted that his satellite communications company Starlink Internet Services will soon enter India and start offering services from 2022. Starlink’s Indian subsidiary has acquired a licence and has started hiring too. With its rural focus, the company is targeting 200,000 connections by December 2022. Its pre-bookings are priced at about Rs 7,500.
However, Musk’s plans to offer these services will be on hold for some time, as the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) has prevented Starlink from pre-selling and booking its satellite-based services in the country.
Nevertheless, the advent of Starlink may lead to a new battle for internet market share. Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb, which is a collaboration with the UK government, is also planning to launch satellite services in a big way. Canada’s Telesat and Nelco, a Tata Group company, also hopes to launch commercial satellite communication (sat com) by 2024.
OneWeb plans to offer its services to enterprises, government, and the aviation and marine sectors. Bharti Airtel CEO Sunil Mittal is looking to provide satellite backhaul and meet rural connectivity targets.
Though satcom has been around for decades, the advancement in technology has made it much more accessible. The Draft Spacecom Policy 2020 and the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018 are likely to shape the sector further.
“The new draft space policy is opening the satcom space for private players. Previously, satcom was done from geostationary satellites, which are at a longer distance and created latency. Now we also have LEO (low earth orbit) satellites, hence the latency issue has been resolved. The launching of satellites too has become cheaper now. All this is making satcom accessible,” said Lt. Gen A K Bhatt (Retd.), director general, Indian Space Association (ISpA).
Why it makes sense for India
Satellite communication is expensive, but it has a strong use case. Around 20-25 per cent of India’s population resides in places which can’t be easily covered by terrestrial telecom and lack mobile and internet access.
The rollout of terrestrial telecom in difficult terrain can cost 15x as much as rollouts in more accessible areas. Moreover, such regions are often under-populated, with low average revenue per user. Satcom could dramatically improve the backhaul for mobile service providers in these areas.
Only about 35 per cent of mobile base stations are fibre-connected. Satellite connectivity works better than microwave technology and is more feasible than fibre in difficult terrain. Satcom could increase the reliability and quality of existing mobile networks, as well as extend the footprint of mobile services.
Hence, despite high costs, the satellite internet user-base could hit 2 million in four years with annual revenues of Rs 6,000 crore, according to some estimates.
Portable terminals can transmit voice and data from any type of satellite. Hence, satellites can be used to service both individual entities, as well as the backhaul for telecom service providers to augment 4G/5G networks.
However, multiple policy issues need to be resolved in the case of satellite broadband. Along with DoT and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the Broadband India Forum (BIF), the newly formed Indian Space Association (ISpA) and the Satcom Industry Association (SiA) must work together to craft policy.
The SiA (formed in March 2021), includes satellite operators, satellite systems, launch vehicles and ground and terminal equipment makers, and application solution providers. The ISpA was launched in October with members such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Bharti Airtel, Larsen & Toubro, Nelco, OneWeb, Mapmyindia, Walchandnagar Industries, and so on.
The following policy areas need clarity: The Universal Licence (UL) needs clarification for specifically permitting international internet gateways. Internet service providers (ISPs) can seek “upstream internet connectivity” from other ISPs, but this needs clarity in the international context. Trai has made some recommendations in this regard.
The UL permits the provision of VSAT services only to Closed User Groups, (business associations, producers of goods and services). Moreover, the conditions imply that such services can be provided only through Indian geo-stationary satellites. It’s crucial to liberalise this area. There must be a clear process to deploy satellite broadband using non-Indian satellites.
Spectrum interference is also an issue. Both terrestrial 5G technologies and satellite broadband use the “Millimetre Wave” (mmWave), especially the Ka Band of 27-40 GHz. Under the current regulations, frequency ranges like 10.7–12.7 GHz, 17.8–18.55 GHz, 18.8–19.3 GHz, 27.5–29.1 GHz bands are allocated to both mobile and satcom.
In India, both telecom operators and satellite operators are pushing for additional spectrum in the same 28 Ghz band of Ka. The International Telecommunications Union has made non-binding recommendations on the use of Ka spectrum for “space to earth” and “earth to space” communications. Starlink uses the Ka Band to provide High Throughput Satellite (HTS) broadband.
When asked about these hurdles, ISpA’s Bhatt said, “There is a global system of allocating spectrum in the space domain. We will also refer to the global framework…This is important because we want satcom to develop. Two, the world over, bands are divided between what is available for space and what is available for terrestrial. Both terrestrial and satcom have to co-exist.”
Trai’s recommendations deal with measures such as reforming specifications to suit modern technologies and allowing satcom for cellular and Wi-Fi backhauls. It has recommended permitting licences to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites and to lease satellite capacity from foreign satellites. Another key recommendation is technology neutrality in the use of all types of satellites for internet-of-things (IoT) applications.
The BIF’s Satcom Committee has also released a White Paper, which is focused on satcom for rural connectivity. This has recommendations for satellite backhaul of 5G cell sites, IoT over satcom, universal coverage, and so on.
Though all the members of communications industry forums will not be on the same page, an ideal satcom policy should provide a level playing field to satcom and terrestrial players, allowing for healthy competition and without room for disputes.