Home / Technology / News /  Mobile satellite access may be a reality in 2 yrs

With iPhone 14 models, Apple may have rolled out limited satellite connectivity for emergency services only in Canada and the US, but the feature may become mainstream even in countries like India within two years, experts said.

At the moment, consumer smartphones in India do not support satellite connectivity. The feature is available only for ‘satphones’ with bulky antennas and specialized software. The handsets are primarily used in areas without cellular or WiFi network coverage for select activities such as maritime applications and trekking.

Experts said Apple’s move represents a growing interest from satellite operators, internet and telecom service providers, and software designers to connect regular smartphones to satellites, and India could also benefit from this trend.

In fact, on 1 September, Hiroshi Lockheimer, a senior vice-president at Google, tweeted that the company is “designing for satellites", and the feature could be enabled in the “next version" of Android.

Anil Prakash, director-general of industry body, Satellite Industry Association of India (SIA), said the Centre is evaluating how users can get easy access to satellite connectivity, which is akin to Apple’s feature on its latest iPhone 14.

“At present, any use of satellite connectivity in the consumer space is governed by the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite (GMPCS) clause under the Department of Telecommunications, which an individual needs to follow to subscribe to satellite connectivity services in India," he said.

GMPCS is a clause under the DoT’s unified licence structure, introduced in the National Telecom Policy, 2012. It allows operators to offer satellite-based connectivity and enables users to seek necessary permissions from the DoT to use satellite phones or satphones in India.

On 26 August 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India released a set of recommendations to liberalize and ease the process of getting a licence to own and operate satphones. It paved the way for firms such as Elon Musk-backed Starlink and Sunil Bharti Mittal’s Airtel-backed OneWeb to launch services in India.

However, challenges such as the complex process for acquiring a licence have been a damper. Currently, BSNL customers are required to procure a certificate of authorization from DoT, which must be submitted along with its customer acquisition form to process the application. Rishi Anand, a partner at law firm DSK Legal, said: “There has been chatter around the telecom industry on easing regulations for satellite connectivity, but there has been no statutory amendment to enable the feature in smartphones." In June 2017, state-run BSNL launched the Global Satellite Phone Service in partnership with UK’s satellite operator Inmarsat. Eligible devices are limited. Inmarsat’s ISAT Phone-II is, however, one handset listed by BSNL. The phone costs around 70,000, and the tariff is pegged at 35 per minute for local satellite calls and 260 per minute for national roaming. Needless to say, this is significantly higher than the call costs on a regular mobile phone. Consumers must also pay spectrum usage charge, which is around 15,000 per annum, Prakash said.

“The charges will not allow satellite services to scale, but DoT’s moves to revise satellite connectivity rules may significantly bring costs down."

To be sure, new policies could bring in consumer-facing companies in the satellite sphere, which could help reduce costs.

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