The sky may literally be the limit when it comes to the potential of satellite broadband in the transition to Digital India. Wired broadband and 4G connectivity cover a large part of the population and upgrades to 5G could vastly improve speeds and quality of services.
But remote areas cannot be easily covered by terrestrial networks. The costs are higher; roll-outs in remote areas can cost 15x as much as roll-outs in more accessible places. Moreover, such regions are often not densely populated, or high ARPU, offering little incentive to service providers.
Satellite internet offers potential solutions for the coverage of the 20-25 per cent of the population residing in such remote regions. The satellite user base could rise from the current 300,000 to over 2 million in less than four years and annual revenues could hit Rs 60 billion.
Apart from providing services to individuals, satcom will improve backhaul. Only about 35 per cent of Indian mobile base stations are fibre connected. Satellite connectivity would substantially improve on microwave (used at present) and more feasible than fibre in many places.
Multiple players are considering satellite service roll-outs. OneWeb, a collaboration between Bharti Airtel and the UK government, applied for a 20-year licence, which was granted in August 2021. Telesat and Nelco, a Tata group company, hopes to launch commercial satellite communications by 2024. Elon Musk’s Starlink and Amazon’s Satcom services are also said to be interested in the Indian market. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has awarded a contract to ST Engineering iDirect to augment satellite bandwidth in the offshore islands of Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep.
The policy issues and implications of satellite broadband opening up must be worked out carefully. The challenges lie in making policy in the following areas:
Spectrum regulations: One challenge is interference with 5G spectrum. Both 5G technologies and satellite broadband use millimetre wave, particularly in Ka-Band, between 27 GHz and 40 GHz. In India, telecom operators and satellite operators are both pushing for additional spectrum in the 28 GHz band of Ka.
The International Telecommunication Union has made non-binding recommendations on the use of Ka spectrum for “space to earth” and “earth to space” communications. Major satellite broadband operators, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, have been counting on the Ka-Band to provide high throughput satellite (HTS) broadband services.
Under the current regulations, frequencies in ranges such as 10.7-12.7 GHz, 17.8-18.55 GHz, 18.8-19.3 GHz, 27.5-29.1 GHz are currently allocated to both mobile and satellite communications without either being designated as the primary user. The government must review this and strike a balance.
Licensing regulations: There must be a clear process to deploy satellite broadband services to individual subscribers/entities.
Personal mobile communication by satellite
Portable terminals can transmit voice and data services delivered from any type of satellite or satellite constellation. However, conditions under the universal licence (UL) need clarification in terms of specifically permitting the setting up of international internet gateways, although ISPs are specifically permitted to seek “upstream internet connectivity” from other ISPs. Security considerations also need to be reviewed. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has made recommendations in this regard, which will clarify the situation if implemented.
The UL permits the provision of VSAT services only to closed user groups (business associations consisting of producers of goods and services). Moreover, the conditions imply such services can be provided only through Indian geostationary satellites. Again, TRAI has made recommendations to liberalise this important area.
Apart from government departments and the regulator, industry forums such as the Broadband India Forum (BIF), the newly formed Indian Space Association (ISpA) and the Satcom Industry Association (SiA) will have to use their interfacing skills to ensure policy in the sector is shaped for maximum efficiency.
The SiA was formed in March 2021 and included stakeholders in the satellite communication space such as satellite operators, satellite systems, launch vehicles, ground and terminal equipment makers, and application solution providers.
The ISpA was launched earlier this month. Its membership roster includes the space agency Indian Space Research Organisation, as well as private entities such as Bharti Airtel, Larsen & Toubro, Nelco (a part of the Tata group), OneWeb, Mapmyindia, Walchandnagar Industries and Ananth Technology. At the launch, the prime minister assured members that draft regulations on services such as space communications and remote sensing were being prepared. The BIF also has a Satcom Committee, which has released a white paper and participated in the discussions. This resulted in the release of the recommendations, “Licensing Framework for Satellite-based Connectivity for Low Bit Rate Applications”, by TRAI.
The government has been proactive in encouraging uptake. In May 2021, a new standard for interface requirements for communication and broadcast networks was released as mandatory technical requirements for fixed satellite service/broadcasting satellite service. The new requirements are based on open, non-restrictive specifications and aligned to the capabilities of modern next-generation satcom technologies such as HTS, non-geostationary orbit satellites, Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit and High Earth Orbit. They also fit with the recommendations of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, as well as the TRAI recommendations.
These new standards provide freedom and flexibility through the removal of artificial technical barriers that previously inhibited speeds, bandwidth and antenna sizes, and only permitted the use of certain frequency bands. This will enable optimal utilisation of the latest technologies and enable high-capacity cellular and Wi-Fi backhaul.
The TRAI recommendations are logical and follow up on measures such as reforming the Telecommunication Engineering Centre specifications to suit modern satellite technologies and provisioning the use of satcom for cellular and Wi-Fi backhaul. The recommendations should enable growth and associated socio-economic benefits and positive externalities, if implemented in full.
TRAI has made key recommendations such as permitting licensees to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites in all permitted bands. There is also a provision to lease satellite capacity directly from pre-authorised foreign satellites – this may be cost effective and fast.
The TRAI paper also suggests the removal of legacy regulations permitting only short-term contracts between a buyer and a supplier without any intermediaries, the removal of facilitation charges imposed by the government for hiring foreign satellite capacities, the removal of the prevailing network operations and control centre (NOCC) charges, a reduction in spectrum usage charges to 1 per cent, and migration from administrative formula-based charging to AGR-based charging. Another key recommendation is the promotion of technology neutrality in the use of all types of satellites in any permitted band for providing internet of things (IoT) applications.
In practical terms, a single-window transparent system for all approvals, permissions, allocations and processes from agencies such as the Department of Space, the Department of Telecommunications, the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing, and NOCC will also help with faster processing of formal requirements. Putting everything online would also aid ease of doing business.
This is a good basis for further regulation. But debate is required on the critical role satellites may play in 5G, and in the integration of satellite communications into global 5G standards, along with the implications of rapid technological advancements. Stakeholders must also study user requirements and potential new use cases to choose the best way forward.
The BIF white paper focuses on “Satellites for 5G and Rural Connectivity”.
Some of the key observations/recommendations of the white paper are as follows:
- Cellular backhaul of 5G cell sites: Cellular backhaul over satellite would enable mobile network operators to expand coverage into areas previously considered unfeasible.
- IoT over satellites: IoT monitoring systems can be connected to the 5G system via satellites through enhanced bandwidth and power efficient terminals.
- Universal coverage: Satellites provide wide coverage to extend the dense urban terrestrial coverage targeted by 5G.
- Resilience: Satellites will reduce overload or congestion.
- Reliability: Satellites also operate in lower frequency bands, which are ideal for high-reliability applications.
- Latency: The design of the 5G air interface must be universal to support varying levels of latencies in order to support a variety of unique user experiences.
- Content multicast: An efficient satellite multicast delivery will help improve user quality of experience, reduce backhaul traffic load and provide immediate, on-demand content access by shifting the content delivery network closer to the user.
Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of fine-tuning policies. It is also likely that all the members of the industry forums will not be on the same page in every respect when it comes to policy changes. There will be tensions between purely terrestrial service providers and satellite service providers, for instance. The 5G versus satellite priorities in terms of spectrum usage also need to be worked out.
But it is encouraging to see that various government departments and the regulator have been reviewing regulatory policies and are thus seeking to establish a framework to enable the best use of these new technologies. This should lead to a conducive regime that allows for the fast launch of satellite-based internet services to fulfil the promise of Digital India. Ideally, the policy in this new segment will provide a level playing field, allowing for healthy competition without leading to all the disputes and confusion that have affected mobile telephony down the years.
By Devangshu Datta