S.K. Gupta, secretary, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI),

The huge mobile data uptake, growing digital aspirations and advent of new-age technologies are putting pressure on the existing connectivity infrastructure to deliver services. In this context, it has become necessary to look at mainstreaming technologies such as satellite communication (satcom) to achieve the goal of connecting the unconnected. At the recent India SatCom-2018 summit, S.K. Gupta, secretary, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), pointed to the need for a comprehensive review and overhaul of the transponder allocation process. He highlighted the importance of satcom for certain applications and services, and the need for a conducive regulatory environment for providing these services. Excerpts…

Connecting the unconnected in India has been a common theme of discussion over the years. Earlier, it was about the reach of voice communications to every citizen and now it has transformed into the need for ensuring data connectivity for all.

In recent years, broadband has become a vital part of our day-to-day lives. The government’s Digital India programme clearly recognises broadband as one of the important pillars on which the other eight pillars of the programme reside. Clearly, broadband is today a critical infrastructure for the country, one that must be leveraged by key industry verticals such as education, health, finance, agriculture, transport and energy. Further, it has been noted that a country’s broadband connectivity has a direct impact on GDP per capita growth. Therefore, the importance of providing robust broadband connectivity to all cannot be overemphasised.

Despite the advantage that broadband brings, today only 30 per cent of consumers in the country have access to broad­­band services. Whether these services meet their expectations in terms of quality is another point for deliberation. There remains a huge population that is yet to be connected with broadband. Thus, it is important to consider how broadband services can be delivered to citizens in every nook and corner of the country. One can argue that this can be done by either increasing optical fibre reach or by enhancing 4G/5G connectivity. Here, we must understand that the provision of fibre, though important, is an extremely time-consuming proposition. The issues associated with right of way are  a pain point for the industry and thus may not be an immediate solution for providing broadband to the unconnected. An immediate solution instead could be the adoption of satellite technology, which can reach the remotest corners of the country as well as difficult terrain such as hilly areas, where the reach of other technologies is not feasible.

While it is important to mainstream satcom for connecting the unconnected, there are certain regulatory bottlenecks in providing broadband services using satellite connectivity. To this end, the recently released National Digital and Communica­tions Policy (NDCP), 2018 seeks to review the existing regulatory regime for encouraging the commercial use of satcom. The policy recognises the need to optimise satcom technologies and develop a conducive ecosystem for the same.

However, the fact remains that the allocation of transponders has so far happened through a mechanism that is ruled by the guidelines issued several years ago. This mechanism is now set to undergo a revision, which will significantly improve the scenario. While an open sky policy is available for C-band and other bands, it is not available for Ku-band. We have no access to Ka-band satellites in India, which, in a sense, is very useful to provide larger download capacity/bits per spectrum or per MHz as compared to Ku-band. The antenna size is smaller in the case of Ka-band and, therefore, the installation cost gets reduced. Globally, several countries are quickly deploying Ka-band satellites.

The cost of satellite bandwidth is higher in India as compared to prevailing satellite bandwidth prices in other parts of the world. To this end, TRAI has, on different forums, advocated an overhaul of the exis­ting mechanisms and systems. The impact will be visible soon, once the policy document in this regard is finalised.

Satellite bandwidth utilisation is also important for certain specific applications like remote monitoring and real-time asset management facilities at unmanned sites and offshore platforms, providing broadband connectivity on trains, cargo and marine vessels, satellite bandwidth sensor connectivity, extending smart grids to remote regions and for emergency respon­se to connected calls.

The NDCP 2018 clearly states that broadband has to be provided as a tool of socio-economic development and has to be an enabler for next-generation technologies. However, to achieve this, it is important that all technologies are put on an equal footing for regulatory support, so that they can compete and flourish, to fulfil the promise of universal broadband connectivity.