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How Strong are Satellite Communications to Support India's Tech Ambitions?

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The buzz started when Elon Musk tweeted that he will provide internet services through his satellite communications company, Starlink. Accordingly, the company made its move by acquiring a license, hiring individuals to execute its operations in the country and has started pre-booking for the internet service as well. But the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) has put a hold on Starlink pre-selling and booking its satellite-based services in the country.

This stirred the battle for other telecom providers to provide satellite-based services for the country. Currently, Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb, which has collaborated with the UK government is looking at a major satellite service launch. Why it’s planning big is that it aims to provide these services to enterprises, government, and the aviation and marine sectors. Rest assured, it also intends to enhance rural connectivity.

Then there are Canada’s Telesat and Nelco, a Tata Group company, which are eager to commence their commercial satellite communication services by 2024.

However, the global satellite equipment distributor and integrator, SATCOM, has already achieved high accessibility with its advanced technology that has evolved for decades. In the same regard, the Draft Spacecom Policy 2020 and the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018 have promised to bring SATCOM’s service to private players to futureproof the sector. As promised, today India has LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites which have solved the latency issue. On the other hand, launching satellites has become less expensive. These efforts combined together have made SATCOM more accessible.

Therefore, it can be said that India is setting a strong foundation for satellite communication even if it means pouring hefty sums into it.

"Our goal...is by 2025-26 to have 1.2 billion Indians have the ability to connect to the internet directly through their device, and...role of satellite communications and space segment is an inherent part of this," Chandrasekhar said

Expensive Yet Promising
Regardless of every development that is taking place in the country, rural parts remain disconnected or have scanty internet facilities thus far. Rolling out terrestrial telecom in difficult terrain is said to cost more than those rollouts for the accessible parts of the country. But thanks to the government bringing SATCOM into the picture, that bleak reality is becoming clear now.

Also, mobile-based stations are fibre connected. This is not the case for Satellite communications, as it not only works better compared to microwave technology, but is found to be more feasible than fibre-connectivity in difficult terrains. However, with SATCOM’s power, the reliability and quality of existing mobile networks, including extended footprint of mobile services, could increase.

It’s true that satellite communications could cost a lot. But that can be made up, provided that satellite internet user-base hits millions in a short span of time and serves annual revenue in crores. This may lead to portable terminals being enabled to transmit voice and data from any type of satellite. As a result, not only can individual entities benefit from satellites, but the backhaul of telecom service providers will be able to augment 4G and 5G networks.

But the drawback lies in the resolve of multiple policy issues with regards to satellite broadband.

Lack of Policies
This is left to the DoT and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the Broadband India Forum (BIF), the newly formed Indian Space Association (ISpA) and the Satcom Industry Association (SiA) to work in tandem for a policy creation.

Additionally areas such as the Universal Licence (UL) need clarification to specifically permit international internet gateways. In turn, the Internet service providers (ISPs) can start to upstream internet connectivity from other ISPs. since UL is said to permit the provision of VSAT services to Closed User Groups only, clubbed with conditions that command providing these services only through Indian geo-stationary satellites. Therefore, industry experts say that a clear process should be brought in place to deploy satellite broadband using non-Indian satellites.

Another issue is the spectrum interference as 5G technologies and broadband either use the Millimetre Wave (mmWave) or the Ka Band of 27-40 GHz. for its regulation, both mobile and SATCOM are allocated the frequency ranges from 10.7–12.7 GHz, 17.8–18.55 GHz, 18.8–19.3 GHz, 27.5–29.1 GHz bands. At the same time, both telecom and satellite operators are pushing for additional spectrum in the same 28 Ghz band of Ka. the International Telecommunication Union administered non-binding recommendations to use Ka spectrum from ‘space to earth’ and ‘earth to space’ communications.

Why these issues exist is due to the fact that spectrum allocations in space are decided by referring to a global system. Moreover, the worldwide broadbands are divided between what is available for space and terrestrial, making a situation that requires the co-existence of SATCOM and terrestrial.

TRAI is looking into SATCOM’s development by implementing measures to reform specifications to suit emerging technologies, while enabling SATCOM for cellular and Wi-Fi backhauls. It has suggested permitting licenses to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites and to lease satellite capacity from foreign satellites. Another suggestion by TRAI is for internet neutrality to enable the use of types of satellites for the Internet of Things’ (IoT) applications.

Utilizing wireless networks raises serious security concerns. A wireless network that is improperly installed or managed could pose serious security risks. Given their low bandwidth, wireless networks are unable to enable VTC or video teleconferencing. Due to the lack of a wireless spectrum to occupy, it also has a limited capacity for expansion. Although installation is quite expensive, wireless networks are typically affordable. A wireless network setup is quite expensive, and there are occasionally additional charges involved. It can be necessary to install specialized hardware for a wireless network, which can be expensive.

What are the Advantages?
Compared to installing a wired network, installing a wireless network is quicker and simpler. Additionally, it lessens the need for complicated-to-install connections, and if users wish to change the network, they must update the wireless network to accommodate the new configurations. A wireless network setup makes it simple for the user to work from home. Users can operate more productively and have access to client data thanks to this network. Wireless networks are economical as they are less expensive and simpler to set up. Although they make a large initial investment, over time, their overall costs decrease.

Satellite communication is emerging as a promising part of India’s ambitions towards quality internet access across the country. Speaking at the India Space Congress 2022, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for IT, said that the digital economy and India’s growing clout for the global technology landscape, satellite communications hold significant relevance.

"Our goal...is by 2025-26 to have 1.2 billion Indians have the ability to connect to the internet directly through their device, and...role of satellite communications and space segment is an inherent part of this," Chandrasekhar said.

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