Seen as the next big thing, satellite communication (satcom) has been gaining prominence globally. Over the past few years, satcom has emerged as a preferred solution for delivering high bandwidth internet connectivity. Satellite-based internet technology plays a vital role in providing seamless access to telecommunication services for various sectors such as aeronautical, military, maritime, rescue and disaster relief.
Telcos are now focusing on the speedy roll-out of 5G services, and satcom is an important component for 5G and beyond wireless architectures as it can complement terrestrial telecommunication solutions in various scenarios to provide highly reliable and secure connectivity over a wide geographical area.
The global satellite communication market size was valued at $71.6 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent from 2022 to 2030. The increasing need for mobile satellite services and small satellites for Earth observation across the energy, oil and gas, defence, and agriculture industries is propelling market growth.
Emerging focus areas
Satcom is expected to play a key role in 5G. Cellular backhaul over satellite enables mobile network operators to expand their coverage into geographic areas previously considered beyond their reach from economic and feasibility standpoints. Further, satellites complement and extend the dense urban terrestrial coverage targeted by 5G. Satellites can support a resilient 5G network by mitigating the problems of overload/ congestion faced by terrestrial networks. In addition, a strong satcom ecosystem will facilitate international roaming to cater to the needs of mobile users. Besides, satellite networks can be used as a single centralised backhaul for edge processing, traffic unloading and resource sharing.
Connecting the unconnected
India has emerged as the second-largest telecom market in the world. Despite the growth in digital broadband connectivity, there are still large parts of India that remain digitally unconnected. The need for digital connectivity has never been more pressing than it is today. Satcom is essential for providing ubiquitous connectivity in all terrains and remotest parts of the country. It continues to be the best suited technology to provide data connectivity in remote and rural locations due to its rapid deployment advantage, reliability, consistency, flexibility and scalability of services across all regions and terrains. It also complements mobile network connectivity. It is the only medium through which communication can be established in disaster zones when normal communication gets affected.
IoT and autonomous systems
The future of internet of things (IoT) revolves around data exchange among interconnected objects for facilitating fast decision-making and enhancing business processes. In this context, satellite technology acts as a key enabler for the transformation of IoT connectivity across industries and geographical borders. Satellite internet offers a reliable network that caters to applications such as remote asset monitoring and ensures uninterrupted connectivity.
Developments in India
The government has been taking key initiatives to promote the use of satcom in the country. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is planning to commence consultations with stakeholders on the allocation methodology for satellite spectrum. To this end, the regulator will deliberate whether spectrum should be given through auction or it should be administratively allocated to satellite firms, and in which bands should it be allocated. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has provided information to TRAI around spectrum availability in various bands like Ku and Ka, used for satellite communications. Ku band is administratively allocated by DoT, but there has been growing demand from telecom companies that allocation of spectrum should be done through auctions only.
The government has clearly demonstrated its intent to facilitate the use of satcom. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in 2020, came up with the draft spacecom policy to meet the communication needs for socio-economic development, connecting inaccessible regions, national security and consumer services. Following this, the Digital Communications Commission allowedvery small aperture terminal (VSAT) operators to provide satellite-based cellular backhaul connectivity to telcos to ensure uninterrupted mobile broadband coverage in remote and far-flung regions. Meanwhile, Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) has reportedly proposed to offer satellite-based internet to 7,000 gram panchayats and sites that are remote and inaccessible.
Among associations, the Satcom Industry Association of India (SIA-India) and the Indian Space Association (ISpA) have signed separate MoUs with Geospatial World in a bid to boost the satcom ecosystem in the country. As part of the partnership, SIA-India will work towards the growth of the satcom ecosystem in India and dissemination of knowledge. They will jointly conduct relevant research for the industry. Meanwhile, while ISpA will work for the promotion and upgradation of all space and geospatial domain activities and services.
Grant of licences
In a major move, Bharti group-backed Oneweb has received a global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) licence from the Government of India to provide satellite services in the country. OneWeb will now be able to provide satellite communication services in India and will help the Bharti Group to gain an edge in connecting its mobile towers through satellite services. In addition, Bharti Airtel and Hughes Communications India Private Limited (HCIPL) have entered into a joint venture to provide satellite broadband services in India. As part of the partnership, HCIPL will combine the VSAT businesses of both companies to offer flexible and scalable enterprise networking solutions using satellite connectivity for primary transport, back-up and hybrid implementation.
Further, Jio Satellite Communications Limited, the satcom arm of Reliance Jio, has obtained a letter of intent (LoI) for GMPCS services from DoT. With this, the company can set up and operate GMPCS services in the licensed service areas and can provide high-speed broadband-from-space services. Further, BBNL is planning to offer its satellite internet services in the Northeast. To this end, BBNL has piloted its satellite-based internet services in the hilly and remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh.
Concerns around satcom
The satcom industry in India is poised to propel the next big revolution in the telecom space. However, this space is not void of challenges. From developing a device to obtaining a connection, satellite communication is an expensive phenomenon. Moreover, as satellite technologies grow more complex, the prices of satellite communication services are also expected to rise. So, it becomes difficult for developing countries to afford such high-price communication methods. Additionally, a satellite once launched, requires to be monitored and controlled on regular periods so that it remains in the orbit.
Besides, the satcom sector faces some potential security-related challenges, especially if it is being seen as a key connectivity channel to meet the demands of 5G backhaul and IoT. An increase in the deployment of satellites will make them more prone to cyberattacks, compromising sensitive information with potentially devastating consequences. Of late, it has become relatively easy for hackers to purchase and operate hacking equipment. It is much easier to aim an antenna at a satellite and send communication to it. Therefore, it is critical that a level of trust is established between earth-bound devices and satellites.
The way forward
Challenges notwithstanding, satcom offers a myriad opportunities to players in the telecom space. The growth of satellite calls for a significant improvement in the ease of doing business by formulating progressive policies that encourage private sector investment and reduce the price of satellite bandwidth. Moreover, the adoption of satellite communication in transportation networks, including logistics, is expected to increase in the coming years, providing new and diverse growth opportunities for the global market.
A robust telecom infrastructure enabled by satellite communication will play a key role in providing seamless connectivity across India. Satellite internet will undoubtedly prove to be a key enabler of India’s digital revolution, given the multiple ways in which it can unlock value across sectors. By delivering ubiquitous, high-speed internet connectivity, satellite broadband will help the country in making its Digital India dream a reality.
Anand Kumar Sah