Satellite communications (satcom) is playing a pivotal role in bridging India’s digital divide to realise the broadband for all and Digital India vision. While technologies like 3G and 4G have helped in digitally connecting the urban and semi-urban areas of the country, the task of providing internet access to rural and remote areas is being accomplished through satcom. Further, with the emergence of new satellite technologies such as low-earth-orbit (LEO) and medium-earth-orbit, India needs to examine how these systems can be utilised for improving connectivity in all areas. Apart from this, it is essential to remove the roadblocks in the segment and promote stakeholder participation to transform the country into a digital economy.
tele.net presents an overview of the satcom ecosystem in India and the outlook for this segment…
Satcom: A low-hanging fruit for India
While internet penetration in urban areas has been increasing at an unprecedented rate, a large fraction of the rural population still remains unconnected. This is because it is difficult to deploy terrestrial technologies such as optical fibre cable (OFC) in remote parts of the country such as Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, the Northeast, Chhattisgarh, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep as well as in rural hinterlands with difficult terrain. The deployment of OFC infrastructure in Naxalite areas is also a challenging task. Even if it is deployed, its maintenance will pose a challenge. In this scenario, satcom solutions, which have been in place for several years, serve as low-hanging fruits for enhancing broadband access in the country.
A key advantage of satcom is that it is faster and more economical to deploy in rural areas as compared to terrestrial technologies. Satellite infrastructure can provide connectivity at a lower cost per bit. While optical fibre provides high capacity, it is concentrated in a small area. Space-based technologies, on the other hand, provide a wider coverage.
Further, calculations show that the cost to cover 1 sq km through space technology is in the range of $1.5-$6, which is negligible as compared to the $3,000 to $30,000 required to cover the same area through ground infrastructure. Unlike terrestrial technologies, satcom can offer ubiquitous coverage and support two-way traffic. Satcom can also become more affordable with the adoption of modern technologies.
According to industry experts, the country has about 10 Gbps unused satellite capacity. This can be utilised to provide connectivity across the country. Further, satellite bandwidth can serve as backup during fibre downtime. With new technologies and innovations in satcom, India could achieve a higher internet penetration level not just by connecting remote areas but also by offering affordable access to customers in urban areas.
Driver for Digital India
To take the Digital India initiative forward, satcom can provide high speed broadband access to gram panchayats under the BharatNet project. It can also be used in the delivery of e-governance, banking, e-learning and healthcare services to far-flung, rural and remote areas where terrestrial connectivity is scarce.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched several satellites to accelerate development under the Digital India initiative. In early 2017, the organisation announced its plans to launch a series of four high throughput satellites – the GSAT-19, GSAT-11, GSAT-29 – the GSAT-20 – aimed at achieving the ambitious target of providing 100 Gbps data connectivity under Digital India. The first of the four satellites, GSAT-19 was launched in June 2017. It was termed a game changer for communications services as it marked India’s entry in the field of high throughput satellites. It carries Ka/Ku band high throughput communication transponders and has a capacity equivalent to a constellation of six or seven old satellites.
Following the successful launch of GSAT-19, ISRO launched the GSAT-29 satellite in November 2018. The satellite carries Ka/Ku band high throughput communication transponders and comprises two separate payloads, designed to improve telecommunication and internet services in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast. It comprises a geostationary high resolution camera to capture sharp images and an optical communication payload, which will demonstrate data transmission at a very high rate through optical communication links.
The most recent satellite launched in December 2018 is GSAT-11, which is a multiband communication satellite. It comes with 32 and 8 transponders in the Ku and Ka bands respectively. According to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the launch of GSAT-11 high throughput satellite will help in providing high speed internet connectivity in the north-eastern states and hilly regions of the country, and will support the BharatNet initiative. Further, GSAT-11 will support high data rate applications for enterprise and consumer broadband. GSAT-11, along with GSAT-19 and GSAT-29, will offer satellite-based broadband services in the rural and remote regions by using the Ka frequency band.
According to ISRO, the fourth satellite, GSAT-20, will be launched in 2019. The combination of these satellites will push the Digital India initiative vision forward and provide 70-100 GB data per second data link.
Building satellite networks for 5G
In addition to the Digital India initiative vision, satellite connectivity will have enormous capacity for rolling out 5G networks. In fact, satellite is an integral part of the 5G roadmap. Industry experts are of the view that an efficient 5G ecosystem would involve a close integration of 5G core infrastructure, ground infrastructure and satellite infrastructure.
Satcom has the scale and scope to provide ubiquitous connectivity, drive network efficiencies, and enable data monetisation for 5G. Further, satellites can provide 5G backhaul for cellular towers, enterprises, commercial and business aviation, maritime, and high speed trains. The upcoming LEO constellations can be leveraged to deliver low latency and extreme throughput 5G mobile backhauling. Moreover, satellite connectivity can support high speed video streaming, and enable internet of things connectivity for remote sensors/actuators, utility meters, autonomous vehicles and smart grids.
The major advantage of building satellite networks for 5G is that these networks are fast and capable of supporting more data traffic. They allow user multiconnectivity, support both fixed and mobile connections in the air, at sea and on the ground through satellite-terrestrial internetworking, and enable service flexibility and scalability. Multiconnectivity entails network and service sharing and convergence of multiple satellite technologies. In addition, satellite networks for 5G have a lower capex and opex as they enable spectrum, hardware and software optimisation, allow dynamic network planning and improve spectral efficiency.
While the scope of satellite communications has widened, the Indian satcom market is still devoid of substantial private sector participation. The market is dominated by ISRO and its commercial arm, Antrix, which have together developed significant satellite capacity. The entity performs all policymaking, licensing and regulatory roles. Hence, there is no competition, underutilised capacity, inefficient operations and exorbitant prices in the market. For example, whereas mobile data communication and broadband user tariffs are similar (on a purchasing power parity basis) between the US and India, satellite communications tariffs in India are nearly 300 times costlier than those in the US. This has hampered the growth of satcom in India.
However, the new National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 appears to have addressed long-standing demands of the industry. The policy proposes to revise licensing and regulatory conditions that limit the use of satcom, simplify compliance requirements for very small aperture terminal (VSAT) operators and expand the scope of permissible services for the effective utilisation of high throughput satellite systems. It also lays emphasis on streamlining administrative processes for assignment, allocation, clearances and permissions related to satcom systems; promoting local manufacturing and development of satcom related infrastructure; and increasing participation of private players.
Impediments for stakeholders
While the satcom space is buzzing with activity, some roadblocks continue to hamper the growth of the segment. The key challenges faced by industry stakeholders are:
- Government: For the government, national security is a key area of concern in the satellite space. Thus, it is important to introduce a self-sustainable space programme in India.
- Standard-setting organisations: They feel that India is a no-go for foreign communication satellite investment as policy uncertainty deters investment in an otherwise attractive Indian market.
- VSAT service providers: These service providers feel that controlled access to foreign capacity limits growth in the Indian market. Further, policy uncertainty leads to the adoption of conservative growth strategies.
- Direct-to-home operators: They believe that the lack of domestic satellite capacity and the forced migration to Indian satellites is a major challenge. The absence of a clear-cut roadmap creates further complications.
- Ground segment: The ground segment in satcom believes that limited domestic capacity for manufacturing ground equipment is a challenge. However, ISRO has been encouraging private players to actively engage in manufacturing equipment indigenously.
The satcom industry is currently ripe for investments. However, bringing satcom into the mainstream and improving the ease of doing business is crucial to encourage private investments in the sector. For one, there is an urgent need to formulate policies that help in reducing the price of satellite bandwidth in India. While global satellite bandwidth prices have reduced considerably, those in India have only increased. Satcom cannot become a popular choice until it is made cost-effective. According to industry experts, the prices need to be reduced five to six times from their current levels within a short span of time in order to realise the Digital India vision. Increasing competition in the satcom market is one way of bringing down prices. To this end, participation and involvement of private parties will be crucial. This task has already been initiated by the Department of Space (DoS).
As the country is witnessing a fundamental shift in the digital cyberspace, the safety and security of satcom networks should be given priority. The DoS, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and DoT are actively working towards this objective. The proposed satellite policy seeks to strike a healthy balance between autonomy, security and communications requirements.
Net, net, a unified policy framework, which promotes the convergence of terrestrial and satellite networks and encourages all stakeholders to leverage the opportunities in the satcom space, will expedite the task of connecting the unconnected.