India’s regulator looks to make satellite communications affordable

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India’s telecom regulator has sought views of the satellite industry stakeholders to make satellite communications (satcom) affordable and attract investment into the space that is seeing interest from Elon Musk’s SpaceX Technologies and Bharti Group-backed OneWeb.

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) had recently written to India’s telecom regulator seeking change in existing rules and regulations to allow satellite technology for broadband access in the country’s remote areas.

Bharti Enterprises, the parent company of Bharti Airtel, also increased its focus on the satellite communications space by acquiring a 45% stake in OneWeb, the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operator, for $500 million.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation paper seeking views on several issues, including licensing framework, ease of doing business, cost of satellite-based service and use cases, among others.

“Satellite communication can provide coverage to the remotest and inaccessible areas of a geographically widespread country like India. The uniqueness and benefit of satellite technology cannot be underestimated. It can play an important role in enhancing crucial nationwide communication infrastructure,” the regulator said in its consultation paper.

“The cost of satellite-based services is on the higher side in the country, due to which it has not been widely adopted by end-users,” TRAI said. It invited suggestions on measures that can be taken to make satellite-based services more affordable in India.

The regulator acknowledged that many sparsely populated areas in the country, with important economic activities, do not have mobile terrestrial coverage or other connectivity forms. “Satellites can bridge this gap by providing coverage to even the remotest areas for low-bit-rate IoT applications.”

The TRAI has also sought feedback on whether licensed national long distance (NLD) operators can be allowed to offer satellite services to connect the Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It also sought comments from the industry on whether only some frequency bands should be available for such satellite-based IoT connectivity.

Notably, India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) recently mentioned that the DoT’s current licensing framework for satellite-based services has limitations concerning the proposed satellite-based low-bit-rate services.

In its November 2020 letter, the department had requested TRAI to furnish recommendations on the Licensing framework to enable the provisioning of satellite-based low bit-rate applications for both commercial and captive usage.

Pointing out the constraints of the existing provisions regarding the proposed satellite-based low bit-rate services, the department had said that there was a need for a suitable licensing framework for providing such services on a commercial basis. It also said that such a framework should cover organizations like State transport Authorities, Indian Railways, other fleet owners, disaster management agencies, which may need to set up a Captive network for their own use (and not for selling the service).

“DoT has requested TRAI to examine all the factors holistically and recommend enabling provisions under the existing licensing framework of DoT, or suggest new licensing framework which must include the entry fee, license fee, bank guarantee, NOCC charges, spectrum usage charges/royalty fee, etc.,” the regulator said in its paper.

The regulator, in its paper, said that it was aware of the long delays reported in the procurement of satellite bandwidth through the existing processes, which involves multiple agencies.

“To attract investment and new players in a sector, the most important characteristic is the ‘Ease of doing Business’. The processes and permissions should be online, i.e. there should be minimum physical interface, well-defined processes with specific timelines and transparency for clarity and ease of operations….it would be convenient to the applicants if there is single window clearance for all kinds of satellite-based processes,” TRAI said.

The regulator has also sought stakeholder views on whether satellite service licensees should be allowed to obtain bandwidth from foreign satellites for providing IoT connectivity. It has also sought suggestions on whether any specific or all bands should be allowed for provisioning satellite-based IoT connectivity.

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