Over the past few years, satellite communication (satcom) has emerged as a preferred solution for delivering high bandwidth internet connectivity. Satcom can play a pivotal role in connecting India’s remote and unconnected regions, as it offers various benefits compared to terrestrial technologies. Moreover, satcom is being seen as one of the fundamental enablers in the proliferation of 5G services worldwide. Another key use case of satcom that is making headwinds is inflight connectivity. Given the plethora of use cases and benefits that are emerging from satellite technology, the government and the regulatory body are actively coming out with measures and recommendations to promote ease of doing business within the sector.
A look at key industry initiatives, emerging focus areas and the evolving policy and regulatory scenario in the satcom space…
There has recently been an increased focus on satellite connectivity to meet the country’s increasing communications needs. Terrestrial connectivity mediums such as towers are feasible and economically viable to deploy in urban areas, but the cost of providing them increases by 10-20 times in rural and remote areas, 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 can 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.
As such, operators are now increasingly looking at satcom as a viable and cost-effective alternative to meeting the ever-growing connectivity requirements of users. In July 2021, Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal announced that the Bharti Group’s satellite arm, OneWeb, is on track to offer services in India from May 2022. As part of this endeavour, OneWeb has been launching a number of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Further, the satellite operator signed an MoU with Hughes in September 2021 to distribute services to large enterprises, small and medium businesses, the government, telcos and internet service providers, including in the rural and remote parts of India. Meanwhile, in August 2021, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) too launched high capacity satellite-based connectivity for the Lakshadweep islands to provide broadband services under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) project, supported by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). BSNL has started work on laying submarine cables between Kochi and Lakshadweep for the project, funded by the USOF, along with another project that aims to augment satellite connectivity from 1.71 Gbps to 3.46 Gbps. Further, BSNL has installed two satellite gateways in Bengaluru equipped with the latest technologies. The gateways provide exceptional efficiency and flexibility to BSNL’s network in Lakshadweep, because they are designed in accordance with the weather conditions of the island. According to the company, the remote station can automatically borrow some satellite bandwidth from nearby stations to maintain a good connection even under the most severe conditions.
Emerging focus areas
In-flight and maritime communications (IFMC) is gaining prominence as a new-age use case of satcom. While the global uptake of IFMC services is strong, India is only beginning to enter the scene. 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 by passengers. According to the draft, internet services will be provided in flight mode, and will be available 10,000 feet above sea level, after departure and before arrival.
The private sector has been taking proactive measures in launching IFMC services in India. In February 2020, Nelco announced the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi services, in partnership with Panasonic Avionics. The satellite operator has also tied up with the air passenger carrier Vistara to offer these services, starting March 2020. Most recently, in October 2021, BSNL received a licence from DoT for the provision of IFMC. Indian airlines will now be able to deploy in-flight connectivity powered by BSNL within India as well as globally. Further, BSNL, which is a strategic partner of Inmarsat, will now be able to deliver Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) mobile broadband services in India. As part of BSNL’s IFMC licence, GX will be available to Indian customers across the government, aviation and maritime sectors.
The satcom space is expected to play an imperative role in 5G and beyond wireless network systems. Cellular backhaul over satellite enables mobile network operators to expand their coverage into geographic areas previously considered economically and feasibly beyond their reach, without any delays. Further, satellites provide wide coverage, to complement and extend the dense urban terrestrial coverage targeted by 5G. Moreover, satellites can support a resilient 5G network to mitigate the problems of overload/congestion faced by terrestrial networks. Given that satellites also operate in the lower frequency bands, they are ideal for high-reliability applications, including safety services. In addition, a strong satcom ecosystem will facilitate international roaming to cater to the needs of mobile users. Besides, the enormity of the required backhaul services will help teleports worldwide. Meanwhile, LEO satellites will be vital in extending cellular 5G networks to air, sea and other remote areas not covered by small cell networks. Lastly, satellite networks can be used as a single centralised backhaul for edge processing, traffic unloading and resource sharing.
Evolving policy and regulatory scenario
The government has been taking key initiatives to promote the use of satcom in the country. Recently, in August 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended that all satellite frequency bands be used for providing satellite-based low-bit-rate connectivity, as a part of its licensing framework for satellite connectivity applications. These recommendations are aimed at enabling cost reductions, removing supply constraints and allowing ease of doing business. This is expected to help bring satcom technology into the mainstream as a viable, cost-effective connectivity medium to power India’s digital dreams. Industry experts have opined that permitting the service licensees to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites in all the permitted satellite bands to provide satellite-based services would greatly enhance capacities for catering to the country’s digital connectivity needs, which are growing at a rapid pace. Further, the provision to lease satellite capacity directly from pre-authorised foreign satellites for operations will help make it a cost-effective means for proliferating broadband across the country, and also allow faster deployments/implementation of services.
Further, the government has come out with numerous measures to establish a more liberalised policy framework. For instance, in May 2021, the government came out with a new standard for interface requirements for communication and broadcast networks for fixed-satellite service/ broadcasting-satellite service, as mandatory technical requirements. These new requirements are based on open, non-restrictive specifications and are fully aligned with the capabilities provided by modern next-generation satcom technologies, such as high throughput satellites, non-geostationary orbit satellites, LEO, medium earth orbit and high earth orbit. They are also aligned with the recommendations of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, as well as TRAI’s recommendations made along these lines.
From a regulatory point of view, satcom growth in India has faced several hurdles due to the rigid regulatory structure and system that discourages free market forces from entering the satcom market. Until recently, much of the focus in India has been on cable, direct-to-home, niche corporate very small aperture terminal, banking (ATM branches) connectivity and trunking solutions.
Besides, the satcom sector faces some potential security-related challenges, especially if it is being seen as a key connectivity channel to meet the demands of 5G backhaul and internet of things (IoT). An increase in the deployment of satellites will make them more prone to cyberattacks, compromising sensitive information with potentially devastating consequences. Of late, it has become relatively easier for hackers to purchase and operate hacking equipment. It is much easier to aim an antenna at a satellite and send communications to it. Therefore, it is critical that a level of trust is established between earth-bound devices and satellites.
Outlook and opportunities
Going forward, satellite internet is expected to account for 50-70 per cent of the market’s growth. India has tremendous scope in offering satellite broadband in the country, as the unconnected and under-connected percentage is huge. According to a report by ICRA, India’s satcom user base is likely to reach up to 2 million by 2025, generating close to Rs 50 billion-Rs 60 billion in revenue annually.
As such, satcom is expected to offer myriad opportunities to players in the telecom space. In order to sustain the growth of the satellite sector, ecosystem players need to focus on new partnership-based models. There is a need to promote collaboration between the Indian Space Research Organisation, incumbent private satcom players and new-age entrepreneurs to exploit the full potential in the satcom space. Further, secure communication must be ensured while deploying satellites.