Ever since the launch of 5G, the industry has been discussing the complementary role that satellite communications (satcom) and 5G can play in bridging India’s digital divide. In an interview with tele.net, Sylwia Kechiche, principal industry analyst (enterprise), Ookla, talks about the evolving satcom landscape in India, the role of telecom service providers (TSPs) and the way forward. Edited excerpts…
How will satcom disrupt the telecom landscape in India? How long do you think it will take for the services to be commercially available?
Indian fixed broadband penetration remains low (9.1 per cent in households) and is heavily skewed towards urban areas. While the majority of the Indian population lives in rural areas (64.6 per cent as per World Bank estimates for 2021), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data shows that these rural areas account for a mere 5.6 per cent of the total fixed broadband connections. Satcom can address the latent demand for broadband connectivity in rural and underserved regions. India’s National Broadband Mission highlights satellite as part of the technology mix to extend broadband connectivity across India. To enable that, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has committed to working with the Department of Space. While a few market and regulatory hurdles still need to be resolved as challenges remain in terms of the business case, satellite-based broadband connectivity should be commercially available to users by mid-2023.
How will the combination of satcom and 5G impact internet connectivity in the country?
5G fixed wireless access (FWA) combined with satellite broadband will be able to reach difficult-to-connect remote and rural areas. Thanks to the emergence of low earth orbit (LEO), satellite technology can provide access to areas outside terrestrial coverage. Meanwhile, FWA will use 5G as the last-mile technology to provide broadband connectivity. 5G FWA has already been very successful in the US, South Africa and the Philippines, and there is growing interest in India too. For instance, Jio announced that it will launch Jio AirFibre, a plug-and-play device connected to Jio’s 5G network that will act as a hotspot. While the exact launch date is still unknown, Jio revealed that it is targeting 100 million households with its 5G FWA offer.
Do you think TSPs are fully geared up for the satcom space?
Indian operators are vying to deploy satellite-based broadband services and have been on a partnership spree with satellite companies. For example, Airtel and US-based satellite operator Hughes established a joint venture (JV) (under the name HCIPL) in January 2022. In February 2022, Jio established a JV (under the name Jio Space Technology Limited) with Luxemburg-based satellite broadband provider SES. OneWeb and Jio Satellite have received DoT approval to start satellite-based broadband services. Starlink is still waiting for regulatory approval.
Indian consumers are also aware of various satellite providers. As part of Ookla’s Consumer Survey 2022, we asked respondents whether they had heard of any of the mentioned satellite internet providers. As per the survey results, 73 per cent had heard of Jio Space Technology, followed by Starlink (36 per cent) and OneWeb (24 per cent). However, one of the challenges related to providing satellite-based broadband is the total cost of ownership. The data rates need to fall, and so does the cost of customer premises equipment. Until service providers can provide affordable satellite bundles, these services will be limited to just a few consumers and remain an enterprise solution.
What lessons can Indian stakeholders learn from other mature markets?
Starlink currently offers services in 37 countries worldwide, and there is still a backlog of prospective customers waiting to receive equipment and start service. Over the past year, more users have signed up for Starlink services and speeds have decreased. Even when speeds become slow, they still provide enough connectivity to do almost everything consumers normally need to do, including streaming 4K video and video messaging.
What, according to you, will be the three key trends dominating the satcom sector in the coming year?
As the 5G standard is adopted, more enterprise use cases will open up for satellite operators, including internet of things and private 5G. Another area of opportunity is cellular backhaul for densification to enable more cell sites and edge devices. Mobile operators and satellite providers have been testing the feasibility of using satellites for 5G backhaul and interoperability for cellular 5G backhaul. At the same time, SatixFy Communications, supported by the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency demonstrated 5G backhaul communication connected to a low earth orbit satellite constellation operated by OneWeb. Another often discussed development in the satellite sector is the Starlink/T-Mobile and Globalstar/Apple partnerships, opening up the direct-to-satellite communications market. The vision is to eradicate mobile dead zones by bringing connectivity to places outside the reach of terrestrial networks.