Liberalising Satcoms in India: Opportunities for Enhanced Economic Growth
The Broadband India Forum (BIF) and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) recently published a report titled liberalising satellite communications in India. This report looks at the regulatory environment for satellite communication across several countries along with a discussion on how the market has evolved globally. It focuses on the potential demand for commercial satellite communications in India, with illustrations around current applications as well as future use cases
There is a global comparison of policy frameworks for satcom with an illustration of the current policy and regulatory framework in India. It offers policy recommendations that could help facilitate the growth of commercial satellite communications without affecting the strategic requirements from the sector.
The report finds potential for satcom applications in India’s digital future. The government has also acknowledged the role of satcom to meet the demands of the emerging era of hyper communication and data utilisation. The DoT recognizes that meeting ambitious targets laid down in the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP 2018) will require a mix of technologies.
Over dependence on mobile wireless technologies may not be adequate to achieve the ambitious targets of 1 GB for every panchayat going up to 10 GB, at 50 Mbps speeds laid down in the policy. This report illustrates existing, as well as promising potential use cases for satcom in India, and has argued for satellites complementing terrestrial communications capabilities in extending connectivity to the most challenging geographical and topological terrains of the country.
DTH RIOS and multicasting with content caching, flight and maritime connectivity, consumer broadband and satellite backhaul are among the key applications for satcom in the future. For this growth to be unleashed, we recommend the following policy initiatives:
• Moving towards market-led mechanisms for provision of satellite bandwidth:
The comparison of policy architectures and regulatory interventions that govern satcom in India vis-à-vis other countries presents a case for moving towards a marketdriven regime for satellite services in India. Global best practices find that bandwidth contracting is directly done between the supplier and user of B2B satellite services and in some cases directly with the enterprise/ end consumer in case of B2C services.
Developing countries such as India with sizeable infrastructural deficits can realise both quantitative and qualitative improvements in their economic growth and quality of life by unleashing the innovative and efficient capacities of the private sector in satcom. It is important to note that this proposed policy shift is being characterized as ‘gradual’ since it would be both feasible from a national security perspective, while at the same time beneficial for application to emerging services such as consumer broadband and mobility.
Opening the supply of satellite capacity to private players will improve access to latest and innovative technologies at an affordable cost. Selective deregulation may not necessarily come at the cost of national security concerns, where possible the government must consider opening up satellite services for private participation that lowers cost of bandwidth and encourages its adoption across potential applications.
In order to address concerns related to security and loss of oversight on content transmitted over foreign
satellites, the government can adapt alternate principles proposed by the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) instead of imposing additional regulatory burdens such as the installation of costly local technical facilities. For example, in the case of fixed satellite services, the government can identify a non-discriminatory way (not distinguishing between domestic and foreign operators) of authorising entities with appropriate permissions to ‘uplink’ to a satellite.
• Separation of regulatory powers and functions:
In order to reap the benefits of India’s telecoms revolution, which, to a significant degree, were sustained and nurtured due to a clear separation of powers and functions between DoT, TRAI and TDSAT, liberalisation of satellite communication must be encouraged. ISRO’s focus could be realigned to its original mandate of research and development, as well as launching satellites, in order to achieve a clear distinction of powers and functions.
The commercial arms Antrix and NSIL, if corporatized and spun off as separate public sector entities, can compete alongside other private sector operators. A clear delineation of functions is necessary for the commercial units. Policy and regulation for all commercial telecoms via satellite could be brought under the purview of DoT and TRAI in consultation with DoS and ISRO to ensure coordinated satellites and frequencies.
In mature policy regimes such as the US, the space agency NASA is more focused on research & development in strategic areas and does not interfere with commercial communications. Similarly, the European Space Agency, also focuses on strategic interests of the region, while the commercial satellite communications are left to the industry.
• Encouraging satellite broadband:
A strategy of augmentation of existing terrestrial broadband capacity is much needed, especially in remote areas of the country where the connectivity spillovers leading to rapid economic growth are yet to be achieved. Moreover, there exist sizeable tracts of urban areas that are uncovered by terrestrial modes that could benefit from satellite connectivity.
With technological advancements, satellite broadband may not necessarily be a substitute to terrestrial alternatives, but work together as complementary applications, especially in the deployment of 5G.
• Capacity augmentation through indigenous private satellite service providers:
As highlighted above, India’s satcom capacity is much lower than desirable for achieving the objectives of Digital India. While the Department of Space (DoS) has previously claimed that India has less than 50% of the satellite capacity it needs, the actual figures might infact be much lower.
Private players must be allowed to set up India-centric commercial broadband satellite systems to bridge the capacity gap. The government must encourage domestic companies to provide commercial broadband using emerging HTS technologies.
• Enabling in-flight mobile connectivity through satcom:
With the notification of the Flight and Maritime Connectivity Rules notified in December 2018 the path has been laid out for airlines and telecom service providers to provide inflight connectivity in the Indian airspace. However, the commercialization and subsequent revenue generation from these services will be constrained by the costs of service provision.
As highlighted above, the increased participation from the private sector will help lower the cost of satellite bandwidth, make provision for adequate bandwidth and thereby make the cost of in-flight connectivity affordable for consumers.
• Encouraging non-commercial applications of satcom:
ISRO already deploys satellite communication technology for a series of non-commercial applications which have a direct socio-economic benefit. Some of these applications include provision of tele-medicine, tele-education, railway signaling, navigation and disaster management services.
Encouraging investments in such applications can have significant socio-economic impacts in a developing country such as India. It will exhibit the capacity of satcom for transformational interventions to the private sector, setting off a virtuous cycle of investments in satcom supported services and social infrastructure.