Amid the growing traction of satellite communication (Satcom) services and global tech majors evincing interest in the Indian market, incumbent telecom players seem to differ on how to allocate spectrum for such services.
While Bharti Airtel has maintained silence on the issue of spectrum allocation for Satcom services by not taking a categorical position either for auctions or against it, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea are batting for auction of spectrum.
Broadband India Forum, an association of technology players like Google, Hughes, etc, is opposed to auctions and feels that since spectrum for Satcom is not exclusive to an operator as is the case with terrestrial spectrum used for mobile services, auctioning makes no sense.
“World over, satellite spectrum is authorised for ‘right-to-use’ by all administrations and is allocated only by administrative process at charges essentially covering the cost of administration. Unlike terrestrial spectrum, satellite spectrum is never exclusively assigned to the operator but coordinated internationally and shared among multiple operators for different orbital slots and all types of satellites. Thus, the terrestrial concept of exclusivity does not apply and auctioning therefore is not applicable,” Broadband India Forum (BIF) president, TV Ramachandran told Financial Express.
Satellite communications is extremely useful for providing broadband services in remote, hilly, and inaccessible regions. It is also the only medium through which communication can be established in disaster zones when normal communication gets affected. In satellite communications, services are provided through low-earth orbit (Leo) satellites, through which a box is suspended in remote and hilly regions which creates WiFi spots through which broadband services are provided.
In November 2020, Sunil Mittal-led Bharti Enterprises got into this business through a UK-based firm OneWeb. The company plans to launch a total 648 satellites by next year to construct a global satellite constellation that will provide enhanced broadband and other services to countries around the world.
Beginning May-June 2022, OneWeb plans to launch commercial broadband services in several parts of the globe in remote and hilly regions where currently such services are not available. The services would commence from UK and the Arctic region and subsequently expand. Services are expected to commence in India sometime October 2022 onwards.
In recent times global tech majors like Amazon, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have also shown interest in such services and India figures prominently in their plans.
While Bharti has got into the satellite game, Jio and Vodafone Idea are still to firm up any plans.
A headstart in satellite communication services is advantageous for a telecom operator as 5G services are dependent on it. Internet of things (IoT) is dependent on satellites.
No wonder, some of the telecom operators want auction of spectrum for satellite services. For instance, Reliance Jio feels that any spectrum band capable to be used for mobile/competing services should be assigned strictly through auction and both terrestrial and satellite operators should be allowed to participate in that auction and then these operators should be free to choose whether they want to use it for terrestrial or satellite-based network.
“Further, assignment of even Ka/Ku/C band spectrum for Geo/Meo satellite must be done through auction only,” Jio has told the Trai, which has floated a consultation paper on licensing framework for satellite-based connectivity for low bit rate applications.
Similarly, Vodafone Idea, in its submission, has said that to ensure optimum utilisation of precious and scarce natural resource, spectrum to be used for satellite-based services should be put to auction route only before allocations. “Any other administrative allocations would cause huge loss to national exchequer,” Vodafone Idea has said.
BIF’s Ramachandran counters such positions taken by Jio and Vodafone Idea. According to him, auctioning of satellite spectrum would, by the same logic, entail taking back of all backhaul microwave spectrum and all Wi-Fi spectrum from the telecom operators and auctioning them. “Auctioning of satellite spectrum would, by the same logic, entail the taking back of all backhaul microwave spectrum and all Wifi spectrum, and auctioning them, which would patently disrupt all connectivity and the economy,” Ramachandran said.
“Moreover, satellite spectrum provides crucial connectivity for disaster relief, helps bridge the digital divide in unserved/underserved areas, takes the extension of wireless coverage to far-flung inaccessible areas and provides critical safety communications in the high seas. For both above reasons, administrations have rightly refrained from considering auction of satellite spectrum,” he added.
SIA-India, a newly launched association of satellite players, has said that spectrum access is key for satellite broadband services. “Only satellite can bring broadband to India’s vast geographic areas in a realistic timeframe since unlike terrestrial 5G, it does not require expansive infrastructure on the ground like street furniture, right of way, fibre laying etc. Advances in technology mean that, unlike terrestrial where a particular spectrum has to be dedicatedly allocated to a specific service provider, the satellite spectrum is reused by multiple satellites,” Anil Prakash, DG, SIA-India said.