Feeling isolated? Satellite communication comes calling

Terrestrial network spectrum, which runs our mobile phone networks, has a much wider usage and network density on ground. They cater to billions of users, leading to the spectrum being fully utilized. (Mint)
Terrestrial network spectrum, which runs our mobile phone networks, has a much wider usage and network density on ground. They cater to billions of users, leading to the spectrum being fully utilized. (Mint)

Summary

  • On-ground telecom networks cannot cover every area. But a satellite network can, by beaming connectivity down to ground stations where ground networks aren’t present

The Telecommunications Act, 2023 allows administrative allocation of satellite spectrum. The move put an end to months of debate on how satellite spectrum should be made available in India, enabling firms to begin satellite communications operations. Mint explains:

What is satellite communication?

Terrestrial networks use on-ground telecom infrastructure to enable connectivity. However, on-ground network cannot cover every area. But a satellite network can, by beaming connectivity down to ground stations where ground networks aren’t present. Jio Satellite Communications and Eutelsat OneWeb, as well as Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper, seek to offer these services. This requires them to get satellite spectrum, which led to the auction vs allocation debate between satellite firms and telcos. The new law settled the debate by constitutionalizing administrative allocation.

How is satellite spectrum different?

Terrestrial network spectrum, which runs our mobile phone networks, has a much wider usage and network density on ground. They cater to billions of users, leading to the spectrum being fully utilized. Satellites use narrow beams to transmit signals through specific spectrum bands, and are used by fewer users in mostly remote situations. Stakeholders have argued that due to fewer use cases, satellite spectrum will never be fully utilized, which makes spectrum-sharing ideal. Bidding out the spectrum would have given companies that own the spectrum power to control who can access it, creating an arbitrage.

Why does auction versus allocation matter to telcos?

Auction ensures that any telco that outbids the other gets exclusive ownership of the spectrum. Here, competitive bidding can drive players out. In administrative allocation, Centre lets operators have access to the spectrum for a fee. The spectrum is shared among all offering satellite-based services, and no private entity dictates terms of spectrum usage.

Is there a global precedent to follow?

Most nations allocate satellite spectrum, which created the spectrum sharing business model for satellite industry. The US uses spectrum allocation to make satellite capacity available to private entities subject to legal clearance. Elon Musk had opposed spectrum auction, and the Centre too found no precedent for auctioning of satellite spectrum including in the EU. India’s private space startups were also in favour of administrative allocation, amid concerns about auctions causing an unfair pricing environment.

When will satellite communication begin?

On paper, satellite-based communications, or satcom services, can begin in India as soon as Trai gives directions on pricing and model of allocation. However, the parties interested in selling the services also need clearance from the ministry of communications. Jio has already announced JioSpaceFiber, while Airtel has said it will distribute OneWeb India’s satellite services in the country. Starlink and Kuiper have already applied for licences. Tata Group’s Nelco, along with Canada’s Telesat, are also in the fray.

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