There has recently been an increased focus on satellite connectivity to meet the country’s increasing communications needs. Terrestrial connectivity mediums such as towers are feasible and economically viable to deploy in urban areas, but the cost of providing terrestrial connectivity increases by 10-20 times in rural and remote areas, thereby making it economically unviable for terrestrial technologies to reach the last 20 per cent of the population. It is in such areas that broadband through satellite will serve as an ideal solution as it does not have to overcome the challenges associated with right of way and huge capex for the roll-out of terrestrial technologies.

A look at the policy and regulatory environment governing the satcom space, recent policy and industry initiatives, key challenges and the way forward…

Policy and regulatory environment

The private sector has been actively pushing for a more liberalised policy framework. The government too, on its part, has taken some key initiatives in this direction. Recently, in May 2021, the government came out with a new standard for interface requirements for communication and broadcast networks for fixed-satellite service (FSS)/broadcasting-satellite service (BSS) as mandatory technical requirements. These new technical requirements are based on open, non-restrictive specifications and are fully aligned with the capabilities provided by modern next-generation satcom technologies, such as high throughput satellites (HTS), non-geostationary orbit satellites, LEO, MEO and HEO. They are also aligned with the recommendations of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, as well as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendations made along these lines.

Rapid advancements in technology allow satellites to provide a host of connectivity options along with ample power and capacity resources. These new specifications/standards provide freedom and flexibility to the ground segment players (VSAT) of the satellite ecosystem to fully exploit the capabilities of next-generation satellite networks. The removal of the erstwhile artificial technical barriers that inhibited carrier speeds, bandwidth and antenna size, and permitted the use of only certain frequency bands, will now enable optimal utilisation of the latest satcom technologies. It will also enhance digital connectivity and provide high capacity cellular and Wi-Fi backhaul to all locations in the country, which is particularly relevant in the present pandemic scenario as well as for future 5G roll-outs.

Formulation of an industry body for a collective voice

Earlier, in March 2021, stakeholders in the satellite communication space including satellite operators; satellite systems, launch vehicles and ground and terminal equipment makers; and application solution providers formed a non-profit industry body called the Satcom Industry Association (SiA-India) to represent a unified voice of the satellite communications ecosystem in India. Soon after coming into existence, SIA-India wrote to TRAI in June 2021, stating that the satcom industry should be provided with a level-playing field on policies pertaining to satellite broadband in India. SIA-India also stated that VSAT and satellite broadband service providers should get incentives such as fixed line broadband providers. Further, there is a need to prioritise the delivery of broadband through satellite in BharatNet.

As the apex representative body for the satcom ecosystem in India, SIA-India aims to represent the interests of the industry at high-level government authorities on policy, regulatory and licensing matters.

Telcos’ growing interest

While operators have always preferred terrestrial solutions, they are now looking at satellite communication as a viable and cost-effective alternative to meeting the ever-growing connectivity requirements of users. Recently, in July 2021, Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal announced that the Bharti Group’s satellite arm, OneWeb, is on track to offering services in India from May 2022. He added that its offering will benefit other telcos as well. It will take broadband to the underserved and remote areas of the country. OneWeb is close to securing landing rights and market access from the Indian authorities, which will pave the way for its planned roll-out of satellite internet services in India. Furthermore, it is in active discussion with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for launching its satellites using both PSLV and SSLV.

While Airtel has been making rapid strides in the satcom space, other operators are not far behind. In February 2021, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) awarded a contract to ST Engineering iDirect to augment satellite bandwidth in the offshore Indian islands of Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep under a Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund project funded by the Department of Telecommunications. The project will utilise the Newtec Dialog platform to provide internet as well as 2G, 3G and 4G services. Further, it will boost social and economic activity in islands that previously had limited access to bandwidth. Under the USO Fund project, BSNL will be able to deliver a broad range of applications, from cellular backhaul and enterprise connectivity to maritime and remote community Wi-Fi, as well as the ability to connect with other Indian states. Earlier, in December 2020, BSNL, in partnership with Skylotech India, announced a satellite-based narrowband-internet of things (NB-IoT) solution. The new Made in India solution, which is indigenously developed by Skylo, seeks to connect with BSNL’s satellite-ground infrastructure and provide pan-India coverage, including the Indian seas. The coverage is expected to be vast, and not leave any dark patch in the country.

While there is a general consensus among industry players regarding the importance of satcom in boosting connectivity across the country, there are differences regarding the allocation of spectrum for the provision of these services. While Bharti Airtel has maintained silence on the issue of spectrum allocation for satcom services, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea are in favour of spectrum auction. However, the Broadband India Forum is of the view that since spectrum for satcom is not exclusive to an operator as is the case with terrestrial spectrum used for mobile services, auction makes no sense.

Key challenges

From a regulatory point of view, satcom growth in India has faced several hurdles due to the rigid regulatory structure and system that discourages free market forces from entering the satcom market. Until recently, much of the focus in India has been on cable, DTH, niche corporate VSAT, banking (ATM branches) connectivity and trunking solutions.

With ISRO regulating Ku-band as a gateway provider of capacity, the opportunities have been limited. Factors such as delayed supply by ISRO, Ka-band uncertainty, long contracting procedures for private players for Ku-band capacity and delays in service provider licences have stunted the growth of sitcom-based broadband in India. Industry experts have highlighted that barring a few use cases such as satellite backhaul and VSAT terminals, India has very little satellite broadband.

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 easier 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.

According to the BIF, to address the national security concerns, clear and transparent guidelines for security compliance could be laid down. These will be applicable to all. It will be beneficial to spell out the guidelines clearly in the policy, so that they are strictly adhered to in the industry.

Outlook and opportunities

Satcom offers 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. Further, the country needs to focus on a new partnership-based model that promotes collaboration among ISRO, incumbent private satcom players and new-age entrepreneurs to exploit the full potential in the satcom space. Further, secure communication must be ensured while deploying satellites.