India’s top telecom operator, Reliance Jio, is at loggerheads with rival Bharti Airtel and global satellite-based communications service operators over the allocation of spectrum for satellite gateways in the country.
The Mukesh Ambani-led 4G operator urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in a official submission to allocate spectrum for satellite gateways strictly via auctions, rather than through the administrative route.
Bharti Airtel – India’s second largest telco by subscriber base – supports the side of satellite operators, who want gateway spectrum to be released via the administrative route, which they say is in line with global practices.
Bharti is a backer of the OneWeb LEOsat system, which has also called on TRAI to back the administrative route approach, as have global satellite broadband operators such as Starlink, Tata-Telesat, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Viasat.
Satellite gateways are crucial infrastructure for satellite-based high-speed internet services – they control the satellite constellation and facilitate broadband connectivity between the satellite and the end-user.
In its own submission to TRAI, Airtel also warned that an auction would cause segmentation of spectrum and drive down the “efficiency of satellite broadband services” drastically, according to a report by the Economic Times, which says it has obtained a copy of both TRAI submissions from Airtel and Jio.
Jio said that spectrum auctions would be in step with the Supreme Court’s 2012 judgment, which said that all natural resources must be released through transparent auctions.
“From a legal aspect, the allocation criteria for any spectrum usable for providing communication services will have to comply with the Supreme Court judgment of February, 2012,” Jio said, adding that “auction of all spectrum” would also ensure an equitable policy in allocation of spectrum, terming it a vital national resource.
Spectrum is critical for inviting new investments and protecting existing large investments by telecom service providers, the operator added.
Jio also reiterated its demand for the “same service, same rules’ principle for satellite operators, who have been seeking spectrum in the mmWave 28-GHz band for satcom services in India.
Jio recommended “a separate satellite gateway earth station authorisation under Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act,” for setting up such gateways. The move would involve establishment and operation of active telecom equipment and spectrum allocation.
Airtel will be a partner of choice for OneWeb in India and its equity participation into the OneWeb India JV will be around $5-7 million. OneWeb plans to offer satcom services in India from June 2022. The company will invest $30-40 million in setting up new ground stations in India. Bharti Enterprises’ overseas subsidiary Bharti Global will invest an additional $500 million into OneWeb, making the overall investment to $1 billion for a 38.6% stake.
Airtel and OneWeb want TRAI to back the allocation of spectrum for satellite earth stations administratively on a case-by-case basis, adding that gateway spectrum will only be used at very specific locations and not assigned nationally.
Amazon Internet, in its submission to the regulator, said that internationally, most countries – such as Sweden and the US, for example – assign spectrum administratively for a Ground Station as-a-Service (GSaaS).
“We recommend that any regulatory framework envisaged should ensure that spectrum assignments by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) are carried out through administrative assignments charged at a standard pricing to avoid cost barriers to both GSaaS earth station operators and their customers,” it added.
In its TRAI submission Elon Musk’s Starlink said frequency assignment policies should be designed to incentivize efficient utilization of spectrum rather than revenue maximization in the short-term that will ultimately cost consumers.”
Starlink, which is a part of SpaceX, said that any uncertainty regarding the ability to use spectrum on a long-term basis would deter investments and limit the growth of satellite-based internet services in the country.
Jio told the regulator that it was imperative to set complete ground rules for offering these services in a technologically neutral environment. In absence of ground rules, the government may face situations like the recent incident where the DoT was compelled to stop “one of the satellite constellations to acquire customers for its beta testing without obtaining an appropriate license”, Jio said.
While Jio didn’t directly name the satellite operator in question, Starlink has been warned by the DoT over that very issue.