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…

Industry initiatives

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

Inflight connectivity

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.

5G

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.

Key challenges

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.