The Indian satellite communications (satcom) market is experiencing rapid growth due to heavy investment in new satellite systems. The demand for satellite-based services, such as broadband internet and satellite television, is being propelled by the increasing number of internet users and the adoption of new navigation systems across the country. Moreover, satellite connectivity has the potential to bridge the gap in digital connectivity in far-flung and sparsely populated areas.
According to a Mordor Intelligence™ report, the Indian satcom market is currently valued at $2.23 billion, and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17.27 per cent during 2023-28, reaching $5.71 billion in the next five years.
Policy landscape in India
A major move in the Indian space domain has been the union cabinet’s approval of the Indian Space Policy, 2023. The policy aims to pave the way for private entities to tap the burgeoning space sector, which will scale up growth in satcom-based services. With this policy, the government has taken a necessary and crucial step to increase India’s share in the global space economy by $446 billion. The policy will allow the private sector to take part in end-to-end space activities such as building satellites, rockets and launch vehicles, and data collection and dissemination. Moreover, private satellite players are allowed to establish and operate satellite earth stations and satellite control centres in India. They are also permitted to utilise Indian/ non-Indian orbital resources to establish space objects for communication services over India and outside India.
Further, policy recognition of non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) operations will be a key growth driver as NGSO satellites offer low latency and high data transfer rates, which are essential for remote sensing, defence, weather forecasting and disaster management.
While the policy’s vision is far-reaching, there is still a need for clarity on its implementation, specifically the role of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) as a single-window clearance agency. This agency will help speed up key statutory clearances such as commercial landing rights and market access, and hasten the roll-out of broadband-from-space services in India.
In another key move, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council has exempted GST on satellite launch services provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Antrix Corporation Limited, and NewSpace India Limited (NSIL). This exemption may be extended to the private sector to promote start-ups.
With ongoing reforms in the space sector, there is a growing interest from industry players to introduce new satellite capacities, not only in geostationary orbit but also in NGSO systems.
Satcom spectrum remains a disputed issue
A widely debated issue in the industry has been the lack of clarity on the mode of satellite spectrum allocation to drive the delivery of affordable satellite broadband services in India. The allocation of satcom spectrum has been a disputed issue between satellite players, with the Bharti Group-backed OneWeb Network Access Associates Limited and Hughes Communications India Limited supporting the administrative allotment of the spectrum, which is the global norm. In contrast, telcos such as Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea Limited are in favour of an auction. The satcom industry argues that auctioning spectrum would render broadband-from-space services unaffordable, denying consumers access to high speed connectivity, and thus be against the public interest, impacting socio-economic welfare. Auctioning satellite spectrum could deter growth potential in the space sector and reduce foreign direct investment (FDI) in satellite broadband.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is currently addressing these issues. According to the Indian Space Association, globally, the auction method for assigning spectrum for satellite-based services has not been successful. The same approach in India would distort the utility of airwaves and widen the country’s digital divide.
With ongoing reforms in the space sector, there is a growing interest from industry players to introduce new satellite capacities, not only in geostationary orbit (GSO) but also in NGSO systems.
For instance, in a significant move, OneWeb announced its plans to obtain trial satellite spectrum from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in the Ka (27.5-29.1 GHz and 29.5-30 GHz) and Ku (14 GHz) bands to test its earth stations and user-access terminals. Additionally, OneWeb has partnered with Intelsat S.A. to offer in-flight connectivity services to airlines. OneWeb and the Gujarat government’s science and technology department have also collaborated to establish a satellite network portal site in Gujarat, which will provide affordable connectivity to various sectors across the nation.
Furthermore, Starlink has applied to IN-SPACe for clearances to set up earth stations. It had also previously applied to DoT to obtain a global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) services licence.
As of 2023, the Indian market has registered at least 150 space-tech start-ups, all with ambitious plans to capitalise on the growing demand for small satellites in low earth orbit (LEO). These start-ups include Skyroot Aerospace Private Limited, Dhruva Space Private Limited, and Pixxel, all of which have been closely working with ISRO. Pixxel has also received a financial grant from Innovations for Defence Excellence to manufacture miniaturised multi-payload satellites for the Indian Air Force. Pixxel will now be able to build small satellites with ease and low costs.
Going forward, the proliferation of 5G technology is set to transform satcom services by providing faster speeds, lower latency and more capacity, enabling new services and applications such as virtual reality and augmented reality.
Additionally, with the number of airline passengers expected to increase sixfold to approximately 1.1 billion by 2040, airlines are seeking innovative ways to differentiate themselves and provide in-flight satcom connectivity that meets the needs of tech-savvy generations.
The Indian defence sector is also increasingly using satcom to effectively communicate and coordinate. The government is supporting the development of satellites in the defence industry. In March 2023, the Indian Army announced plans to launch its top-end communication satellite in partnership with the defence ministry. The ministry signed a $363.87 million agreement with NSIL for an advanced communication satellite for the forces.
The Indian Space Policy, 2023 is aimed at paving the way for private entities to tap the burgeoning space sector, which will scale up growth in satcom-based services.
Role in connecting rural India
Despite the growth in digital broadband connectivity, there are still many areas of India that remain unconnected. To this end, satcom is helping transform the rural economy by enabling financial inclusion, skill development programmes, healthcare services and other applications in remote locations. According to DoT, satellite broadband is evolving to serve the needs of consumers and businesses, and it could help bridge the last-mile connectivity gap. Satellites are also being used to connect internet of things (IoT) devices in rural and urban areas where terrestrial networks are unavailable. Further, LEO satellites could provide an alternative solution to terrestrial networks, particularly in remote areas.
The future of satcom, despite its advancements, faces various challenges. Spectrum congestion, regulatory complexities and orbital debris management are significant obstacles. Players planning to offer broadband services from space still face significant obstacles related to FDI and the method of spectrum allocation.
Further, developing a device and obtaining a connection can be expensive. As technologies grow more complex, the prices of satcom services also rise, making it difficult for developing countries to afford such high-priced communication solutions. Additionally, the sector faces potential security-related challenges, especially if it is considered a key connectivity channel to meet the demands of 5G backhaul and IoT. Moreover, an increase in satellite deployment will make connections more susceptible to cyberattacks, which could compromise sensitive information and lead to potentially devastating consequences.
Despite challenges, satcom is projected to grow in India, with the ICRA Limited estimating that there will be 1.5 million-2 million satellite users by 2025, potentially generating an annual revenue of Rs 50 billion-60 billion.
While the new space policy is a positive step forward, its timely implementation is crucial. The regulatory framework laid out in the policy should be clarified with transparent guidelines, enabling players to make informed decisions and strategise their expansion efforts.