Satellite-based communication (satcom) networks have been in operation for decades, providing reliable primary and backup services for various industries, including defence, banking (ATMs) and television. These networks have relied primarily on geostationary satellites, placed far away from the earth’s orbit, to transmit communication signals. However, over the past few years, the use of satellites very close to the earth known as low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites has increased significantly, enabling the satcom industry to deliver high-speed and reliable broadband.
The modern satellite-based internet connectivity is slowly emerging as a promising solution to overcome challenges associated with right of way and the considerable capex requirements for the roll-out of terrestrial technologies in rural and remote areas. 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 10-20 times in rural and remote areas. Meanwhile, given its promise of ultra-low latency, satellite broadband also holds the potential to facilitate the growth of next-generation technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing and 5G. According to industry estimates, the global satcom industry is expected to be worth $141 billion by 2030, with over 53 million subscribers leveraging satellite services for their communication needs by that year.
Enabling role in the proliferation of next-generation technologies
The role of satellite broadband becomes particularly critical in mission-critical applications such as disaster management, emergency healthcare and defence, which require highly reliable connectivity with near-zero latency. Moreover, satellite connectivity is the only possible mode of broadband communication in places where terrestrial networks cannot exist. For instance, IoT sensors in tracking devices on cargo containers being shipped across oceans can be powered through satellite communication. Satcom can, therefore, ensure service continuity for IoT devices and connected/autonomous vehicles by providing reliable communications and supporting software updates on moving platforms such as passenger vehicles, aircraft, ships, trains and buses. Satellite-based connectivity can also help transport operators travelling across different countries avoid paying for multiple wireless carriers along the route, in order to ensure a continuous operation of embedded IoT devices.
Similarly, broadband access through satellites can help enterprises enhance their experience of using cloud platforms for storing, hosting and managing their data. Cloud connectivity requires robust and high throughput bandwidth, which can be provided through satellite broadband. Moreover, satellite-based connectivity helps avert network outages that may occur in terrestrial networks because of cable cuts, natural calamities, etc.
Satellite networks can also help telecom players realise the full potential of 5G services. Multiple successful demonstrations have shown that satellites can support key technological features in 5G networks, such as software-defined networking, network function virtualisation and multi-access edge computing. Using satcom, operators can extend the reach of limited terrestrial 5G networks to underserved areas and places that terrestrial networks cannot cover.
Indian market upbeat about the satcom opportunity
For the Indian market, satellite networks offer a viable means to provide broadband in rural and remote areas. Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), which is implementing the government’s BharatNet project, is planning to deploy satellite-based internet networks in 7,000 gram panchayats where deploying fibre is not feasible. Four satellite gateways, including two high throughput satellites (HTS), will be used to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to these 7,000 gram panchayats. Meanwhile, BBNL is also planning to offer its satellite internet services in the northeastern states. It has already initiated a pilot of its services in hilly and remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh.
Private telecom players are also looking at satellite communication as a promising alternative to meeting the ever-growing connectivity requirements of users, both individuals as well as enterprises. Bharti Airtel has taken the lead in this regard. In April 2022, the operator’s satellite arm, OneWeb received the global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) licence, making it eligible to provide satcom services in the country. OneWeb plans to launch its satellite broadband services in mid-2023 and will focus on providing satellite services for enterprises across industries, Wi-Fi on airlines, emergency services and defence applications. OneWeb has also signed a strategic six-year distribution agreement with the satellite service provider, Hughes Network Systems, to provide satellite broadband services across India. OneWeb had launched 428 of its total planned 648 LEO satellites by February 2022. It recently partnered with New Space India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), to complete its satellite launch programme. In October 2022, NSIL launched 36 of OneWeb’s satellites into space.
Meanwhile, Jio Satellite Communications Limited, the satcom arm of Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), has also received a letter of intent (LoI) for GMPCS services from the Department of Telecommunications. The LoI allows the operator to set up and operate GMPCS services in licensed service areas and provide high-speed broadband-from-space services. The licence is for a period of 20 years and includes the permission to offer voice and data services via satellite. Earlier in February 2022, RJIL had formed a joint venture with SES Luxembourg, a global satellite communications company, to launch broadband services in India through satellites. The Tata Group is also planning to enter the Indian satellite broadband sector in partnership with the Canada-based Telesat. Earlier, in September 2020, Nelco, a Tata Group company, had partnered with Telesat to offer enterprise broadband services based on the latter’s LEO satellites.
Satcom policy landscape in India
The Indian government is actively working to create a conducive policy environment to accelerate the adoption of satellite-based telecom networks. Strengthening satellite communication technologies in India is one of the major thrust areas of the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018. The policy calls for a review of the regulatory regime for satellite communication technologies, including revising licensing and regulatory conditions that limit the use of satellite communications, such as speed barriers, band allocation, etc. It also recommends simplifying compliance requirements for VSAT operators to ensure faster roll-outs. Further, the policy advocates making available new spectrum bands (such as Ka Band) for satellite-based commercial communication services, rationalising spectrum charges for satcom and asssessing bandwidth demands across various spectrum bands, in consultation with stakeholders.
In line with the recommendations of NDCP 2018, the government in June 2020 approved private sector participation in space activities. Subsequently, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was announced to provide a level-playing field for private companies in satellite design, manufacturing, launch and space-based services and applications. Further, in October 2020, ISRO released the draft spacecom policy with a view to regulating the commercial use of orbital slots, satellites and ground stations for communication needs in India and encourage participation of private players in space-based communication. The industry is now keenly awaiting the release of the final comprehensive policy that will spell out how the government’s initiative of opening up the space sector will be executed. Meanwhile, the government has also allowed very small aperture terminal (VSAT) operators to provide satellite-based cellular backhaul connectivity to telecom operators to ensure uninterrupted mobile broadband coverage in remote and far-flung regions.
On the regulatory front, in August 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released its recommendations for creating a licensing framework for satellite-based connectivity for low bit rate applications such as ATM, IoT and traffic management. The regulator recommended that all types of satellites, including geostationary orbit (GSO) and non-GSO satellites and any of the permitted satellite frequency bands, be used to provide satellite-based low-bit-rate connectivity. Further, as per TRAI, service licensees should be permitted to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites in all the permitted satellite bands to provide satellite-based services. The regulator further recommended that the government develop a road map detailing the launch schedule of communication satellites and the availability of domestic satellite capacities in India to facilitate service licensees to plan and optimise capacity procurement.
Meanwhile, the mode of spectrum allocation for satellite networks has emerged as a contentious issue between the government and the satcom industry. While industry players have advocated administrative allocation of satellite spectrum in line with global practices, the government is pushing for spectrum auction.
Satellite-based communication networks have emerged as a promising alternative to delivering high-speed and reliable internet services in rural and remote areas. As the technology achieves mass commercialisation, several use cases of satellite broadband will likely emerge for individual users as well. Satellite networks also hold the potential to unleash the full potential of next-generation technologies such as 5G, cloud and IoT.
India has emerged as a significant player in the global space communication sector. Going forward, a conducive policy comprising international best practices to ensure growth and greater participation of private players in the space communication sector will enable India to keep pace with the growing demand for satellite-based network connectivity.