Anil Prakash, Director General, SIA-India

Anil Prakash, Director General, SIA-India

The satellite industry has been keenly awaiting the new spacecom policy, which is aimed at boosting private sector participation in the entire range of space activities and enhancing indigenous space assets. In June 2020, the union cabinet approved private sector participation in space activities. The formation of the In­­dian National Space Promotion and Au­thorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was an­nounced subsequently to provide a level-playing field for private companies in sa­tellite design, manufacturing, launch and space-based services and applications.

The decision to allow private players to be co-travellers in the country’s space journey is a revolutionary step in the 50 plus years of India’s space travel and represents a striking shift in the vision of the government for its space programme. India is strongly placed to seize a 10 per cent market share in the global space sector in the next decade, which would translate into a $50 billion space economy, creating a ripple effect in providing strategic depth on indigenous manufacturing, ancillary businesses, R&D, investments, emp­loy­­ment, gross domestic product and overall socio-economic growth.

At present, the sector is witnessing several policy changes encouraging space entrepreneurship, investments and foreign collaborations, along with capacity-building measures for preparing the youth for future opportunities. Many Indian and in­ternational companies, investors and start-ups have been showing interest in the new space economy. According to Dr K. Sivan, former secretary, Department of Space (DoS), the number of private industry proposals in the space sector has increased by 30 per cent in 2021.

The reforms in the space sector date back to the 1990s when the first Satcom Policy was released in 1997. A set of “norms, procedures and guidelines” followed in 2000. After a decade, the government released a new draft Spacecom Poli­cy 2020, also known as the Draft Space­com NGP 2020. In 2017, the draft Space Acti­vities Bill was first made public for comments by the Indian Space Research Orga­nisation (ISRO). However, it is yet to be tabled in Parliament.

Some of the delay in policy reforms can be attributed to the pandemic. But things are looking very positive for the industry right now. The industry waits with anticipation for the momentum in policy development that will bring a lot of clarity for businesses to plan their investments, business models and strategies.

The year 2021 began with a series of new reforms, policy decisions and big laun­ch plans for the satcom industry in In­dia. In back-to-back moves to accelerate the use of satellite technologies to deliver broadband in the country, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has anno­un­ced two major reform measures. In March 2021, the Telecom Engineering Ce­n­tre (TEC), DoT, eased the rules re­gar­ding the usage of spectrum bands, antenna sizes and speeds for satellite firms. Further, in July, the Digital Communi­cations Com­mi­ssion, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendations, cleared the use of very small aperture terminals (VSATs) for provisioning of backhaul services for cellular mobile using satellite connectivity. This would speed up the reach targets for telecom networks to provide services in remote areas where it is difficult to lay optical fibre.

For the first time, ISRO has opened up its facilities for private firms and start-ups to use their infrastructure in February 2021, a much-needed support for the non-government private entities. Now labs, testing facilities and quality facilities will be provided to firms without requiring them to invest in infrastructure, giving them a great financial cushion. The Gov­ern­ment of India is also supporting various pro­g­ra­mmes of the DoS, with an enhan­ced allocation of Rs 139.49 billion as budget.

Nearly 40 proposals from start-ups, micro, small and medium enterprises, and private enterprises have been received by IN-SPACe for various space-related activities such as developing launch vehicles, bu­il­ding and operating satellites and establishing ground segments and research partnerships. We believe that foreign direct investment rules will be fully liberalised with 100 per cent approval through the automatic route, which can potentially bring in several joint ventures to promote collaborative development of satellites, paving the way for massive investments and job creation.

These developments are very positive for the industry. However, a few concerns remain such as all the draft policies that are up have overlapping, indistinct rules and functions, where the precise jurisdiction is not clear in the absence of a Space Act. Ambiguity in clearance mechanisms and processes due to such overlapping ju­ri­sdiction would substantially impact the ease of doing business in India. Delay in the clearance of the Space Activities Bill, along with the aforementioned shortcomings, would affect the international trade and investment opportunities that the sector can bring. Currently, not a single policy has a well-defined objective or time-tagged targets for the satcom sector.

The recent DoT notification to TRAI on Auction of Spectrum in the frequency ban­ds identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT)/5G not only disregards to secure the satellite communications infra established and invested in C band from IMT interference, but also intends to reallocate International Tele­com­munication Union (ITU)-identified spectrum for 5G/IMT services in the 28 GHz band. This will have a major impact on the business economics of satellite op­e­rations with regard to the mega conste­llati­ons of LEO (low earth orbit)/MEO (me­dium earth orbit) and besides the private sector, government projects from ISRO will also be hugely impacted. A balanced and justifiable approach in the auctioning of spectrum bands is, therefore, ur­gent and imperative.

Unlocking the huge potential of the space sector in India calls for innovative and pragmatic approach and a policy that is bold enough to create a commercially viable market for businesses, while keeping national security parameters in check. What India needs is a regulatory sandbox framework for developing regulation that keeps up with the fast pace of innovation and provides safe testing grounds for new business models that are well protected by any future regulation.

Maximum commercial and operational flexibility is a must for an innovation and investment with a light-touch licensing and regulatory approach. This can be done by providing technology neutrality and transparency, access to sufficient spectrum in the ITU-approved satellite bands, adopting best engineering solutions to address security concerns and adoption of international best practices.

The year 2021 has already set the tone for the current year with critical policy reforms under way. Satcom is a relevant part of the government’s mission of providing ubiquitous connectivity, especially in rural India, where nearly 51 per cent are unconnected. Satcom has the potential to be the game changer that can transform the Digital India architecture of the country, help achieve indigenisation goals and place India as a powerful player in the global space arena.

This decade will be crucial for the growth of the satcom industry and the year 2022 is going to be a make-or-break year for the space sector.