Lt. General A.K. Bhatt, Director General, ISpA

In October 2021, the government took the historic step of opening up the space sector for private players with the launch of the Indian Space Association (ISpA). The organisation aims to contribute to the government’s vision of making India Aatmanirbhar and a global leader in the space arena, which is fast emerging as a growth frontier in the digital world. In an interview with tele.net, Lt. General A.K. Bhatt, Director General, ISpA, shares his views on the key objectives of the ISpA, the role of the private sector in the space industry and the way forward…

What are the key objectives of the ISpA? How does it plan to revolutionise the Indian space sector?

The ISpA aims to be an advocate and en­abler of private and public sector engagement, growth and capacity building in India’s space domain. We will work with the Indi­an government, regulatory entities, and national and international organisations to achieve this goal along with other stakeholders, and also participate in formulating effective, efficient and appropriate policies and regulatory frameworks for ease of doing business and policy stability. The association also aspires to foster awareness and promotion of design, manufacture, la­unch, operation and R&D of space-related equipment such as satellites, launch vehicles, ground and space control systems.

The ISpA will support Indian start-ups and established companies in the space do­ma­in, and act as a unified voice and brid­ge in the Indian space industry for ensuring and enabling policy frameworks. We will facilitate the creation of a healthy collaborative business climate and provide a strong platform for all stakeholders in the space industry to cooperate, identify areas of mu­tual growth and sustainability and, if need be, look for joint ventures. The ISpA also seeks to concentrate on establishing global links for the Indian space sector to att­ract more international and domestic in­vest­me­nts and develop vital technology to create more high-skilled jobs.

What is the scope for satellite-based broadband in India? Which spectrum bands are suitable for the provision of these services?

Over the past few years, India’s broadband connectivity has tripled, from 150 million users in March 2016 to 780 million subscribers in March 2021, including mobile broadband. However, in a country with a population of over 1.4 billion people, nearly half of the population still lacks internet access. With the help of satellite broadband, it will be easier to reach even the most remote areas of the country that were previously inaccessible.

Over the last few months, there has been a surge in interest in satellite com­m­u­nications in India. Satellite operators all over the world use spectrum bands such as Ka band (28 GHz: 27.5-31.0 GHz). The ISpA also recommended to the Tele­com Re­gu­latory Authority of India that spectrum from 27.5-28.5 GHz should be excluded from the auction for IMT/5G and should be reserved for space. How­ever, the final de­ci­sion on spectrum allocation is still awaited.

How is the current competitive landscape of the space sector? What role can the private sector play in India’s space journey?

The global space economy now generates more than $371 billion, with India acc­ounting for only about 2.6 per cent of that total. Many private firms are investing in India’s space sector, and a number of start-ups and government organisations are looking for new ways to establish themselves. The market for nanosats and mega-co­nstellations of small satellites has in­c­reased, making satellite launch services a profitable business in the country. The production of small satellite launch vehicles by Indian private enterprises is aimed at establishing a robust space ecosystem in the private sector and, as a result, capturing a fair portion of the rising launch in­dustry. The Indian Space Research Orga­ni­sation (ISRO) has promoted public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the Indian space sector in a variety of sectors, including component manufacturing and satellite assembly, integration and testing (AIT). The space agency has formed a co­nsortium of private industry players for AIT of 30-35 satellites.

With the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative, the focus has again shifted to achieving sustainable development th­rough local manufacturing. Thus, the time is right for the formulation of industry-friendly policies for the space sector in India, wherein stakeholders, including private players, get their voice heard and thus can draw their capacity for the benefit of the industry.

The recent launch of the ISpA by the prime minister has been a ground-breaking initiative to open up the industry for private players. The industry body will act as an independent and single-window agency to enable the opening up of the space sector to start-ups and the private sector.

What are your expectations from the Space­com Policy? How can it bridge India’s digital divide?

The Spacecom Policy will enable the commercialisation of space technology and boost private investments in the sector. These reforms will focus on innovations in the private sector, helping the government act as an enabler, preparing the youth for the future and ensuring that the space sector is used for the progress of humanity.

The Draft Spacecom Policy is at an advanced stage of consultation in the government and a wide range of proposals have been put forth by ISRO and IN-SPACe, which are under active consideration. Spacecom, Remote Sensing Policy and Transfer of Technology are the three policies for which discussions have been held among IN-SPACe, the Department of Space and private companies.

What are the challenges hampering the growth of the space sector?

Since the space sector is still at a nascent stage in India, many private enterprises and start-ups are coming forward to invest in this sector. There are some areas that need to be focused on like the ab­sence of a national space legislation, which leads to a lack of clarity on condu­c­ting space-related business activities in the country. Also, the lack of awareness about the demands of the global space industry is a challenging ar­ea. If there is adequate information about the needs, re­le­vant start-ups will step forward.

There is also the lack of an established regulatory framework and rules for technology commercialisation and finance in the Indian space sector, which impacts private investment in the sector.

What is your outlook for the sector in 2022? What will be the key growth drivers?

The roll-out of the Spacecom Policy would bring in significant opportunities for the space communication segment, es­pe­cially space-based broadband, wherein low earth orbit satellites with low latency will help address connectivity challenges of far-flung areas and rural India.

The Spacecom Policy, the Remote Sensing Policy and the Transfer of Tech­nology Policy are the three major policies that are expected to come out this year. The PPP and FDI policies for the private space sector will also be in focus as a lot depends on them for the further gro­wth of the sector.