While operators have always preferred terrestrial solutions, they are now looking at satellite communication satcom as a viable and cost-effective alternative for meeting the ever-growing connectivity requirements of users. In fact, over the years, satcom has emerged as a preferred solution for delivering high-bandwidth internet connectivity in rural and remote areas. This is because satcom offers more benefits than terrestrial technologies. It is not only faster and more economical to deploy in rural areas, but it can also provide connectivity at a lower cost per bit and wider coverage.

The need of users to always stay connected has led to the emergence of a new use case for satcom, in-flight connectivity. This is an emerging business for operators with immense opportunity. While opportunities for satellite service providers are plenty, there are also many challenges in the way.  The rigid and inflexible regulatory structure is a key concern. Thus, there is a need for the efficient and effective capitalisation of the existing opportunities in the industry would help ironing out of these challenges, and implementation of more favourable policies.

A look at some of the current use cases of satcom technology, key challenges and the way forward…

Strengthening connectivity with satellite

Of late, there has been an increased focus on using satellite connectivity to meet the country’s increasing communications needs. While terrestrial connectivity mediums such as towers are feasible and economically viable to deploy in urban areas, the cost of providing terrestrial connectivity increases by almost 10-20 times in rural and remote areas, thereby making it economically unviable for terrestrial technologies to reach the last 20 per cent of the population. It is in such areas that broadband through satellite will serve as an ideal solution as it does not have to overcome the challenges associated with right of way and huge capex for the roll-out of terrestrial technologies.

Given the benefits attached to the technology, the industry is rapidly working towards deploying satcom solutions to meet the growing connectivity requirements. For instance, recently, in September 2020, Nelco announced a partnership with Telesat, as part of which, the two companies will collaboratively offer Telesat LEO satellite connectivity in India. The availability of the Telesat LEO network in India has the po-tential to provide significant benefits in areas such as 4G/5G backhaul, mobile hotspots, distance education, telemedicine, village connectivity, and maritime and in-flight connectivity. The open architecture, compliant with the Metro Ethernet Forum standard, will simplify the integration of Telesat LEO services with enterprise networks, including Nelco infrastructure and service offerings. The Telesat LEO Layer 2 transport service, a virtual fibre network, can deliver hundreds of Mbps to a terminal.

Even though such progressive initiatives continue to be taken, the present capacity of indigenous satellites is inadequate to meet the demand and needs to be augmented manyfold. Hence, industry experts are of the view that if domestic capacity is unable to meet the current and growing demand, more private/foreign satellite capacities should be harnessed considering that a huge amount of satcom capacity is lying underutilised.

In-flight connectivity: A new use case of satcom

Apart from strengthening connectivity across the country, a new-age use case of satcom is the provision of in-flight and maritime connectivity (IFMC). While globally IFMC services are seeing increased uptake, India is only beginning to enter the scene. Recently, in August 2020, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation announced the draft regulations for the use of in-flight Wi-Fi on portable electronic devices (PEDs) by passengers. As per the draft, internet services will be provided in flight mode and will be available 10,000 feet above sea level after departure or before arrival. Further, the pilot in-command will have the authority to turn internet services off during any phase of the flight. In addition, the crew needs to be trained on PEDs to help passengers. To this end, airlines have been asked to educate their cabin crew on procedures and responsibilities concerning the use of PEDs. Moreover, the draft rules state that aircraft operators have to identify safety hazards and manage the risks associated with the use of on-board Wi-Fi.

Apart from regulatory developments by the government, the private sector is taking proactive measures to launch IFMC services in India. Earlier, in February 2020, Nelco announced the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi services in partnership with Panasonic Avionics. The satellite operator also tied up with air passenger carrier Vistara to offer these services, starting March 2020. Prior to this, in September 2019, the company had launched maritime communication services in India.

Globally, the IFC and maritime markets are maturing in terms of standards and quality of services. Meanwhile, India is just beginning to open up its market for these services. To do so effectively, India needs to quickly adopt global standards for these services. The challenges faced by licensees based on the existing licensing and regulatory framework need to be addressed so that such services are facilitated in the Indian waters and airspace on a par with the best global practices. There is a need to create the necessary framework to make India a part of any maritime/aeronautical service that has global attributes.

Key challenges

Satcom growth in India has faced several hurdles due to the rigid regulatory structure and system, which discourages free market forces from entering the satcom market. Until recently, much of the focus in India has been on cable, DTH, niche corporate VSAT, banking (ATM branches) connectivity and trunking solutions. With ISRO regulating Ku-band as a gateway provider of capacity, the opportunities have been limited. Factors such as delayed supply by ISRO, Ka-band uncertainty, long contracting procedures for private players for Ku-band capacity, and delays in service provider licences have stunted the growth of broadband in India. Moreover, industry experts have highlighted that barring a few use cases such as satellite backhaul and VSAT terminals, India has very little satellite broadband. This is because there are various legal, policy and regulatory challenges which have limited the deployment of broadband services through satellite.

Policy impetus and the way forward

The current institutional framework governing satellite communication is quite complex. It can often deter private sector operators from entering this market, despite its potential. The process involves approaching multiple administrative departments in order to secure frequency allocations, orbital slots, etc., and meet other regulatory requisites such as FDI restrictions and norms to attract foreign equity infusion.

According to T.V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum, in order to tide over these challenges, the liberalisation of satellite communication must be encouraged. To this end, it is imperative that the policy and regulation of all commercial telecommunication services via satellite is brought under a department that is not responsible for launching its own satellites. In fact, the Department of Space/ ISRO could play a consultative role with a view to identifying coordinated satellites and frequencies in line with ITU procedures to be used for telecom networks. Creating a more hospitable and liberal ecosystem would enable the government to achieve many of its digital goals.

In view of this, the government has taken some positive steps. For instance, in ear-ly 2020, the finance ministry announced that as part of the stimulus package, the government will welcome the involvement of private sector players in space activities. Industry experts have welcomed this move and believe that it will help fast-track national space activities, including the commercial satellite communication programme. That said, there is still a long way to go for the sector to mature to the required level, on a par with its global counterparts.