No auctioning satellite spectrum | The Financial Express

No auctioning satellite spectrum

The argument of ‘same service, same rules’ (as terrestrial spectrum) doesn’t really hold.

No auctioning satellite spectrum
Satellite-network operations require bilateral/multilateral coordination and cooperation. (IE)

The recent move by some groups to press for auction of spectrum for satellite communication and broadcasting services on an the basis of ‘same service, same rules’ rekindles an unnecessary debate that risks derailing the Digital India dream.

Satellite spectrum, which has no national territorial limits, is coordinated and managed by the UN agency, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and is subject to their Radio Regulations for satellite networks to operate without harmful interference. Satellite spectrum is a shared commodity that is not given exclusively to any operator, and thus, does not meet the fundamental prerequisite for being auctionable.

Satellite-network operations require bilateral/multilateral coordination and cooperation. In fact, India is signatory to a specific treaty for spectrum cooperation involving 194 other administrations. Spectrum for satcom services is authorised for ‘right-to-use’ by all nations across the world, and is allocated only by administrative process, at charges that essentially cover the cost of administration.

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The satellite ppectrum bands are completely different from terrestrial bands. Once the filing is made and approval is granted, the spectrum band(s) in which the said satellite(s) will operate is pre-fixed. There are multiple satellites—sometimes tens, if not hundreds—operating in the same band, albeit in different orbital slots. By giving away that spectrum band through an auction-based mechanism, usage is restricted to only one service provider, whether for satellite use or terrestrial or mixed use case.

When countries assign spectrum administratively for this critical sector, why should India—perhaps the most ambitious and progressive in its pursuit of a digital economy—adopt an obviously-retrograde measure?

The situation is even more bewildering if we consider the government’s repeated and clearly demonstrated intent to help the satcom sector grow expeditiously, by enabling provisions for liberalisation, facilitating more private participation, and empowering satcom to become a mainstream communications technology for India. The prime minister and the finance minister have, more than once, declared the intent to make satcom available for national development and towards public utilisation. The creation of IN-SPACe, a visionary move, positioned the agency as an enabler for private sector’s participation and contribution to India’s space economy. The Space Bill was also developed simultaneously, to provide more impetus to the sector. So the government’s aspirations are clearly evident.

Currently, there is great emphasis on using satellite broadband to efficiently serve the unserved and underserved areas of the country. For example, the government decision to connect far flung islands and border areas of North-East through satellite broadband using USOF funds is a progressive one. But it would come under threat if the said spectrum bands for the ISRO-GSAT satellite being used to deliver satellite broadband to serve those areas are auctioned to service providers, who would like to use it for either terrestrial purposes or any other application. Such a move will be counter-productive to the digital dreams of the country and run contrary to the objectives of inclusivity, to which the government is committed.

The concept of “same service, same rules” is often cited as justification for auctioning satellite spectrum. Amusingly, this is a case of ‘being hoist with one’s own petard’ since satellite communications is a different service from terrestrial communications, and a shared commodity, like satellite spectrum, does not even meet the fundamental prerequisite for being auctionable. Moreover, it is as bizarre as suggesting that since a bullock cart, an automobile and an aeroplane are used for the same service of transportation, they should all be subject to the same traffic rules!

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A common misrepresentation is that the Supreme Court has mandated spectrum auction. The SC opined, in its advisory jurisdiction in the Presidential Reference in the 2G case, that “Auction, as a method of disposal of natural resources, cannot be declared to be a Constitutional mandate under Article 14 of the Constitution of India.” The SC further stated that “Auction may be the best way of maximising revenue, but revenue maximisation may not always be the best way to serve public good.” The minister for communications and electronics & IT has stated that the public good is, without doubt, enabling ubiquitous digital connectivity to empower the citizens and facilitate digital inclusion.

India presently holds barely 2% of the global revenues of the satellite sector. If we are to meet the stated goal of achieving 10% of the sectoral revenues globally by 2030, and truly emerge as a leading digital economy where satcom is a vital pillar, an intent to auction satellite spectrum can only be a massive setback.

The writer is honorary fellow, IET (London), and president, Broadband India Forum

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