SpaceX wants India to change rules to allow satellite broadband

SpaceX India Starlink
60 Starlink satellites stacked together before deployment on 24 May 2019 - Wikipedia

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has 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. It said “powerful next-generation satellite systems” can reach all corners of the country with high-speed, affordable service are critical to bridging this gap.

Patricia Cooper, Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs at SpaceX, in a filing to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said that new technologies like Starlink may require consideration of updated rules, policies and regulation. “Accordingly, SpaceX respectfully recommends that TRAI undertake the actions to provide consumers with more choices and better service.”

She said that SpaceX’s Starlink high-capacity, high-speed, low-latency satellite network will advance the goal of delivering broadband connectivity in the near term to all Indians, particularly those without access now or in the near-term to broadband services traditionally available only to customers in urban and suburban areas.

In its letter, SpaceX urged the regulator to encourage technology-neutral broadband definitions that reflect the advances of next generation satellite services besides assigning already-allocated frequencies for use by satellite systems.

It also asked the TRAI to extend “blanket” licensing tools to support the wide-spread availability of satellite user terminals. It wants the regulator to promote maximum spectrum efficiency by expecting users to coordinate use of scarce spectrum resources across multiple systems, whether terrestrial or space-based.

“Safeguard ongoing satellite innovation in higher frequency bands, while maintaining the expectation that all spectrum users, terrestrial and space-based, will coordinate in good faith,” Cooper said.

She said that close scrutiny and relaxation of undue regulatory, tax or administrative burdens can accelerate broadband availability and speed deployment from all technology platforms. “Considering the unintended fees, taxes and other administrative burdens that, when passed on to end-users, can make broadband unaffordable to many.”

SpaceX said that it is leveraging its accumulated expertise in space system manufacturing, design and operations to develop Starlink, a constellation of satellites designed to provide high-speed, low-latency, competitively priced broadband service to locations around the world where access to the Internet has been unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable.

The first Starlink constellation consists of over 4,400 non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites employing advanced communications and space operations technology. To date, SpaceX has launched over 700 Starlink satellites in a little over 16 months, and is now the largest operational satellite constellation by a more than factor of two.

Since 2018, SpaceX has invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Starlink and is currently building 120 satellites per month, along with thousands of end-user terminals each month.

SpaceX is already testing Starlink’s broadband service in the United States among SpaceX Friends & Family, and then will move quickly to a limited public release followed by a larger U.S. and international rollout.

For India, SpaceX is on track with constellation deployments for continuous Starlink coverage throughout India by the end of 2021 with corresponding service capability, regulatory approvals permitting, Cooper said.

In its submission, SpaceX recommended coordination between terrestrial and satellite providers to privately coordinate spectrum usage. With respect to spectrum sharing among NGSO satellite operators, the company has also endorsed approaches to encourage development of spectrally efficient technologies. SpaceX said that it supports a band-splitting model for spectrum sharing among NGSO satellite operators that rewards the system that uses spectrum most efficiently.

“In addition to providing an alternative or complementary choice of end-user broadband providers beyond terrestrial fixed and mobile, SpaceX believes in a robust, competitive broadband market driven by innovation and efficiency that maximizes consumer choice…TRAI should implement policies to incent spectrum efficiency and spectrum sharing among broadband providers to deliver the most service to Indian citizens and businesses,” Cooper said.

SpaceX said that it encourages TRAI to extend the existing licensing regime for multiple identical satellite terminals, often referred to as a “blanket license.” “Such a “blanket license” would streamline the site-per-site licensing requirements and accelerate widespread deployment of two-way satellite broadband terminals to support innovative satellite services in India, including the broadband Internet service that SpaceX is preparing to deliver.”

To extend services to currently unserved or underserved areas, the blanket licenses should be permitted for all satellite broadband terminals, not just VSATs, Cooper said.

“Extending blanket licensing to broadband terminals would expand the number of Indian consumers that can be supported by emerging NGSO satellite constellations, such as Starlink,” she added.

SpaceX says that Ka-band frequency, which is normally used to connect ground stations to fixed satellite systems, should be assigned to providers.

“While India has long encouraged satellite operators to deploy gateway earth station facilities within the country, this policy is thwarted by the absence of Ka-band frequency assignments that are required to communicate with those gateway earth stations. SpaceX encourages TRAI and spectrum agencies in India to develop an approval process for these assignments. This effort is fundamental to expanded high-speed broadband service in India,” Cooper said.

SpaceX also urged the regulator to change rules for E and V bands to allow satellite players to leverage these bands. “V-band is illustrative of the potential for satellite and terrestrial spectrum sharing,” it said, adding that the company has also actively promoted the ability for satellite innovation to unfold in the E band.

“Safeguarding technology innovation for satellite in these bands is particularly timely, given that investment and deployment of satellite technology and NGSO systems is at an all-time high, and such NGSO constellations are poised to bring advanced broadband access services to India, including heretofore unserved and underserved rural areas,” Cooper added.

Indian telecom operators have already reached out to the country’s Department of Space to block any possible backdoor entry of satellite communications operators.

Telcos, through their representative body COAI, urged the department to ensure a level-playing field in the country’s satellite broadband space. They said that the non-government private entities (NGPE), recently permitted by the government to establish space systems to provide communication services, must be subjected to a similar licensing regime as telecom service providers.

Notably, Bharti Enterprises, the parent company of Bharti Airtel has lately increased its focus on the satellite communication space. It recently bought a 45% stake in OneWeb, the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operator, for $500 million.

In August this year, Bharti CEO Sunil Mittal sought ISRO’s cooperation in delivering high-speed broadband services in India by early 2022 using a constellation of 648-odd low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites. He also sought ISRO’s support to build affordable access terminals for OneWeb’s services in the country.

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