India opens skies for satellite broadband revolution

satellite broadband
Rural India gets ready for high-speed internet as the government unlocks satellite broadband to bridge the digital divide.

The Telecommunications Bill 2023 has initiated the administrative allocation of spectrum for satellite broadband services, a significant step expected to energise the space sector. Key players, including Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper, have eagerly anticipated this development. Satellite broadband holds the promise of revolutionising internet services, particularly in areas underserved by traditional telecom infrastructure. The Department of Telecommunications, previously uncertain whether to allocate spectrum through auctions or administrative means, has now opted for administrative allocation at administered prices.

Satellite spectrum, a segment of radio frequencies allocated for satellite communications, allows for high-speed internet connectivity even in remote regions, where ground-based telecom infrastructure is less feasible. This spectrum, typically ranging between 1.5 and 51.5 gigahertz (GHz), is crucial for delivering broadband services at high speeds.

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The Bill facilitates access to this spectrum under the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite (GMPCS) licence. This decision to administratively allocate satellite spectrum, rather than auction it, aligns with international norms and is expected to hasten the rollout of satellite broadband services across India.

While the potential of satellite broadband is exciting, affordability remains a crucial question. The cost of terminals and plans could create a barrier for low-income users, potentially undermining the goal of bridging the digital divide. The government and operators must collaborate to develop subsidy programmes and affordable service tiers to ensure equitable access for all Indians.

The approach to spectrum allocation has sparked debate within the industry and government. Reliance Jio advocated for auctioning the spectrum, citing fairness and a level playing field, while OneWeb recommended administrative allocation with associated fees. The satellite spectrum, unlike terrestrial spectrum used for mobile communications, is inherently international, managed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) without national borders.

As spectrum is a limited and valuable resource, companies compete for access to it for various uses, including satellite broadcasting and communication.

Implementing the Telecommunications Bill effectively requires robust regulatory frameworks. The Department of Telecommunications needs to establish clear guidelines for spectrum usage, ensure fair competition among players, and address issues like data privacy and cybersecurity concerns in the satellite broadband landscape. Balancing these considerations will be crucial for a smooth and secure rollout.

The introduction of the Telecom Bill, unexpectedly added to Parliament’s agenda, has been commended by space industry experts who believe that this move aligns India with global standards, fosters international cooperation, and supports innovation and opportunities for startups, enhancing India’s role in the global satellite market.

Satellite broadband vs 5G

Comparing satellite broadband with 5G reveals distinct advantages and limitations. Satellite connectivity, independent of ground infrastructure, offers wider coverage, potentially high speeds, and unlimited data plans, making it particularly suitable for remote areas. However, it can be affected by latency and weather conditions. In contrast, 5G provides low latency and high speeds but is limited in reach, as seen in rural India.

The surge in satellite constellations brings ethical considerations to the forefront. The concerns about light pollution and astronomical interference are valid and require collaboration between space agencies, satellite operators, and astronomers. Exploring satellite design improvements and responsible constellation management are crucial to minimise the environmental impact of this expanding technology.

With advancing technology and the rising demand for dependable high-speed internet, satellite internet is emerging as a formidable competitor to traditional broadband and fibre optic services. Its entry into the telecom market is expected to intensify competition, benefiting consumers through improved services and competitive pricing.

There are concerns associated with satellite broadband, including its impact on night sky visibility. The scientific community and environmentalists worry that the increasing number of satellites required for higher speeds may disrupt the natural beauty of the night sky and affect astronomical observations and wildlife behaviour.

Instead of viewing satellite broadband as a competitor, considering it as a complementary element within a converged telecom ecosystem offers a promising future. Combining the wide coverage of satellite with the high speed and low latency of terrestrial networks like 5G can create robust and ubiquitous connectivity solutions. Collaborations between terrestrial and satellite providers could revolutionise rural telecommunications, bridging the digital divide and unlocking further development opportunities.