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Regulatory hurdles, testing may postpone satellite internet launch in India

Satellite communications, or satcom-based internet connectivity, may come to you later than expected.

Industry stakeholders and close watchers said while satcom service providers are ready to launch their own services in India, multiple regulatory roadblocks and subsequent testing are almost certain to delay the launch of satellite internet beyond the end of this year—and could even stall its rollout until the end of next year.

Satcom services in the mainstream fold entail satellite operators that have launched and deployed satellite constellations in low-earth orbit (LEO). These satellites subsequently work in a relay formation to ensure that they cover the entire planet with their bandwidth. As a result, satcom internet services have been pegged as one that can work even in extreme terrain—such as in flights, maritime activities, and in extremely dense forests or in high mountains.

The telecom act
To deploy this, in December last year, erstwhile Union telecommunications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw tabled the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, which passed the Parliament and became an Act. The Act gave way for satcom services to start operating in India, with the government choosing administrative spectrum allocation for satellite services as the way forward since the spectrum used for satellite broadband relay is shared across various services.

However, the erstwhile government failed to notify rules under the Act prior to the seven-phase elections that began on 19 April—leaving the allocation process in limbo.

“The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is now working towards floating a consultation process for the draft rules that will define how spectrum allocation would work under the Centre. Once this consultation is closed, a set of draft rules will be presented for a final set of consultation—following which the final rules will then be notified. It is only after all this that spectrum allocation can take place from the Centre, following which the satcom operators will also undertake their own testing before the service is launched. Overall, this is unlikely to take anything below six months, even if a streamlined process is followed,” said Anil Prakash, director-general of industry body, Satcom Industry Association of India (SIA).

Prakash’s assessment vindicates Mint’s report of 6 May, which cited a senior government official saying that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), under which TRAI operates, is likely to take at least six months until commencing the notification process of all the rules within the Telecommunications Act, 2023.

All of this means that satcom internet services, both for consumers and enterprises, are unlikely to commence within this year itself.

Enterprise disinterest
A second concern has been a potential lack of enterprise interest in the technology. A senior executive in the IT services industry, who requested anonymity, said that demand for satcom-driven analytics, connectivity and backhaul services have “declined or at least remained flat in the past 18 months”.

“The impact of the global macroeconomic environment, coupled with the uncertainty of elections in major economies globally including India, have led to enterprises across industries stalling worldwide tech spending en masse. While the IT services industry is the biggest affected entity due to this, satcom services could also face an early impact right at its onset in India due to its high cost at the moment—which is off-putting in a weak macroeconomic environment,” the executive added.

Companies, however, maintain that the only hurdle for satcom services in India is regulatory. A senior telecom industry executive said that the likes of Bharti Airtel and UK-based OneWeb, as well as Reliance Jio and Luxembourg-based SES, are ready with their licences and technology. “The only thing that remains is a regulatory go-ahead and the allocation of the spectrum—the operators are ready to fire,” the executive added.

Questions sent to Reliance Jio did not receive responses. Bharti Airtel did not respond to a request for a comment, and a Starlink representative was unavailable until press time.

An Amazon spokesperson, speaking on behalf of its satcom services division Project Kuiper, said, “Project Kuiper is a long-term initiative for Amazon, and we look forward to working with the Indian government and local partners to connect customers and communities across the country. It will bring fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities in rural and remote places in India.”

Going forward, it remains to be seen if confidence in the notification of the spectrum allocation process dwindles. On 4 June, the erstwhile in-power Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure a singular majority in India’s general assembly elections, forcing its hand into forming a coalition government. The move raised some uncertainties in the market, with lawmakers and corporate officials stating on Tuesday that a coalition government, or even a new one, could make continuity of ongoing policy and legislative work more challenging in the long run. Livemint

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