In September, Hughes Communications India launched India’s first high-throughput satellite (HTS) broadband service in partnership with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This is focused on providing connectivity in remote mountainous areas.
The service uses three ISRO geostationary satellites (GSAT 11, 19 and 29) to cover the Himalayas, from Kashmir and Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. It also covers the other “sisters” of the Northeast, and the far-flung archipelagos of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep. It has connected 5,500 village panchayats and many army outposts and other defence installations.
There are several other companies seeking entry into a market that has been opened up by recent regulatory changes. OneWeb in collaboration with Bharti Airtel, and Reliance Jio in partnership with SES under the name Jio Satellite Communications have both received global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) licences and are now eagerly awaiting the satellite spectrum policy.
Nelco, which is a part of the Tata Group, has also applied for a GMPCS licence. It has conducted a demonstration of high speed broadband connectivity with the help of Canada-based Telesat’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellite. SpaceX’s Starlink division, which provides satellite internet services, is also seeking clearances for such services, and Amazon and Microsoft are also believed to be interested in providing such services worldwide.
In 2020, the satellite communication (satcom) market was estimated to be about $2.93 billion and it is expected to grow exponentially in the next decade. Globally, 2.5-3 billion people, including a significant portion of India’s population, live in regions where it is hard to provide terrestrial broadband services. Satcom could connect these underserved people.
Broadband coverage via satellite could vastly improve communications in those parts of India where conventional wireless networks or fibre broadband is hard to roll out, and expensive due to difficulties of terrain and low density of population.
In addition to connecting end-users, satellite broadband could substantially improve backhaul for terrestrial networks in such places. Assuming such services are affordably priced, they would enable small businesses and individuals in such regions to access digital banking and other financial services, for example. In turn, that should lead to more development.
According to a report by ABI Research, titled “Constellations: Deployments and Subscriptions”, the annual global service revenues from satellites are expected to reach $141 billion by 2030, and this will be driven by the increased adoption of satellite-based services. As per the report, the deployment of satellite constellations in low earth orbit for low-latency and high-throughput network applications and for extending terrestrial network coverage has become a significant driver for the adoption of satellite services in global telecommunications.
At least 73 satellite service providers currently provide satcom services worldwide, with the most influential players being OneWeb, SpaceX, Hughes Network Systems, and Globalstar. Market developments have shown that satellite services such as internet of things (IoT), backhaul, commercial broadband and mobile satellite services (MSS) can meet carrier-grade performance requirements for communication service providers.
The market leaders are offering solutions focusing on satellite-to-mobile device connectivity in partnership with telcos and smartphone manufacturers. Some of the major partnerships include T-Mobile and SpaceX, Telstra and OneWeb, Vodafone and AST SpaceMobile, and Huawei and BeiDou.
Many different technologies are being deployed in this process. Satellites may be geostationary, orbiting at 36,000 km distance, or they may be LEO (less than 1,000 km) or medium earth orbit (MEO) (above 2,000 km). They may deploy different bandwidths. There are advantages and disadvantages to different configurations. LEO is low latency and better at providing services to mobile customers. Geostationary satellites are better at covering a fixed footprint.
HTS, as in the Hughes service, uses “spot beam” technology to utilise the same bandwidth to transmit different data to different “spots”. This is done by using a high-gain antenna to beam out a strong, narrow-focus signal across a “spot” of a few hundred square kilometres. This is an improvement on earlier standards where weaker, less focused signals used to be broadcast to several thousand square kilometres – this is what is used to offer content on TV channels, for instance. Since spot beams can use the same frequency to carry different data to many different spots, the same frequency can carry much more data – easily 10x or 20x – compared to the earlier standards.
The current services use Ku-band transponders, which is the common standard (but not mandatory in engineering terms). Hughes intends to ramp up further by getting bandwidth on SpaceX Starlink’s LEO or MEO satellites in the next phase, as well as continuing the partnership with ISRO, or rather with NSIL (NewSpace India Limited, which is ISRO’s commercial arm). On its part, ISRO is developing more flexible software-driven designs for its next generation of satellites.
“Nanosatellites and satellite IoT will drive the next generation of technology and such innovations are expected to enable connectivity across industries and empower it and the upcoming 6G capability. Innovations in satellite ground stations, orbital services, payloads, operational systems and artificial intelligence would enable satellites to perform more complex functions,” says Dr P.D. Vaghela, chairman, TRAI.
Andrew Cavalier, analyst, satellite communications industry, ABI Research, says, “Satellite communication services have seen a new wave of enthusiasm and convergence with terrestrial networks looking to extend past their zones of coverage and bridge the digital divide.”
There is increased focus on deployments in LEO for key satellite services in broadband, backhaul, IoT and MSS applications. For service providers targeting consumers, the competition over rural and remote market share will become a battleground, and this is one of the key drivers for the growth of these services. In the enterprise segment, global supply chains are fast evolving in the aftermath of Covid-19 and the Ukraine war, and telecom service providers are keen to build more resilient, efficient networks.
The Indian market for such services opened up when the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) launched multiple reforms, which are expected to enable satellite communications to become a mainstream option. The reforms would significantly enhance the ease of doing business and help reduce costs, thus enabling the vision of Digital India. These measures, in tandem with the liberalisation of Department of Space regulations, and the launch of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (InSPACe), are big boosters for investor confidence.
The measures announced by DoT aim for simplification of processes and procedures and a waiver and reduction in charges and fees for permissions and licences as part of the liberalisation of satcom. This will lead to increased provisioning of satcom in unserved and underserved areas.
The reforms will lead to much faster roll-outs. All applications are being routed through the Saral Sanchar portal. In terms of costs, there is a waiver of the annual network operation and control centre (NOCC) charges for both broadcasters and very small aperture terminal (VSAT) licensees and a reduction in mandatory performance verification testing (MPVT) charges, which will greatly benefit both broadcasters and the satcom industry, and enable them to set affordable charges that will help downstream users and promote business.
There will now be a single-stage scrutiny process by the Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing and the NOCC, instead of the earlier multistage scrutiny. Time-consuming per-site clearances have been done away with for each user-side terminal and VSAT. Self-verification has been introduced instead of MPVT of satellite antennas. Timelines for clearances and processes, which used to be six to eight months, are supposed to be reduced to six weeks.
DoT has also enhanced the scope of VSAT and other licences to include user terminals on moving platforms and satellite-based machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT devices. This will enable the enhanced use of satellite-based services in logistics, transportation (by Indian Railways for instance) and other sectors and therefore attract investments and create employment. Moreover, the move will lead to the proliferation of IoT in rural and remote areas.
The savings in NOCC charges and the removal of MPVT charges will lead to estimated savings of about Rs 1.2 billion per annum for the satellite broadcast and communications sector. This is significant. Also, as pointed out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the cost of monitoring satellite transponders is included in the spectrum usage charges (SUC), thereby eliminating the need for charging separately.
Improved ease of doing business would undoubtedly lead to more savings, which cannot yet be easily quantified. The positive externalities of this would be felt across the entire economy, including individuals and small businesses. This would surely constitute the most valuable long-term outcome of these reforms.
T.V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Foundation (BIF), says, “These reforms will go a long way in meeting the goals of Digital India and Broadband for All and become all the more significant with positive and powerful developments such as the ongoing liberalisation programme, the forthcoming space bill and the opening up of the sector to enhance private sector involvement in space activities. The latest reforms by DoT are bound to boost India’s digital connectivity quotient, including the provisioning of broadband to the remotest and most inaccessible terrain in a most efficient and expeditious manner, thereby helping the nation to achieve its goal of attaining Antyodyay. Other benefits include providing broadband on the move – in trains, flights and ships – as well as other innovative services and applications.”
The Satcom Industry Association of India (SIA-India) has also hailed the reforms, which should streamline processes and enable service providers to quickly roll out networks. SIA-India believes that the reduction in compliance burdens will help make satcom networks much more affordable. This will positively impact sectors such as education, healthcare, agriculture, logistics, disaster management, risk mitigation, logistics, railways, and heavy industry.
Service providers are looking at satellite spectrum auctions – India may be the first nation to auction spectrum for satellite communication, according to Vaghela. The regulator has also received a reference from DoT for the spectrum required to be put up for auction, and other related aspects of satellite-based communication. TRAI is expected to release a consultation paper in this regard.
This would address an area of potential conflict and concern. Telecom operators favour spectrum auctions for satcom, but the satellite industry opposes such a proposal. Moreover, it has been the case elsewhere that certain frequencies are reserved for satcom and not offered for terrestrial services, but that can be done through administration rather than auction.
Indeed, industry associations such as BIF and the Indian Space Association (ISpA) have called for administrative allocation of spectrum. “A spectrum auction for satellite spectrum would artificially limit the number of satellite operators sharing the spectrum and exclude them from the market, while satellite operators can (differently from terrestrial mobile operators) coexist in the same frequency range,” ISpA notes.
Reliance Jio presented the opposing view in its response to a TRAI consultation paper on the 5G spectrum auctions: “There is no doubt that satellite services are going to co-exist, complement and compete with terrestrial services both technically and commercially; however, the demands for administrative allocation by satellite operators are not legally tenable.”
Bharti Enterprises chief Sunil Bharti Mittal has batted against the auction method for the allocation of satellite spectrum. According to Mittal, the auction is not necessary since satellite services do not compete with mobile services. Satellite companies are waiting for the spacecom policy, which is expected in a few weeks, according to an industry executive.
In November 2021, TRAI had asked DoT to provide the details of the frequency bands and the quantum of spectrum available in each band to be put to auction along with associated information in respect of space-based communication.
Earlier, in April, while issuing recommendations related to the modalities of 5G spectrum, TRAI had recommended auction of spectrum in the 24.25-28.5 GHz band, which includes the 27.5-28.5 GHz frequency range for satellite services. However, DoT did not include this in the auction and asked TRAI for a separate recommendation on it after it sends the required information.
OneWeb, Starlink, Nelco and Jio Space will have to await the consultation paper and the methodology of spectrum allocation before they are able to offer satcom services. This could take a few months with the telecom secretary looking at mid-2023 for the roll-out.
These potential conflicts must be avoided or managed deftly by the regulatory authorities. Right now, the nascent Indian satcom market has very few connections, which are estimated to be only about one-tenth of China, Japan and Korea, one-seventh of the European Union, and one-sixteenth of the US.
The reforms promise to support explosive growth at affordable rates, if there is a pragmatic and speedy resolution of the spectrum allocation issues.