India has moved closer to getting commercial satellite broadband communication with the promise of connectivity for a vast majority of citizens living in remote areas. OneWeb India, a subsidiary of Eutelsat Group and backed by telecom major Bharti Group, announced last week it had got all the required regulatory approvals, including those from the Department of Space, needed for a commercial launch. While that’s certainly a welcome development, the company would still have to wait for spectrum to roll out its services. The worrying part is that there’s no certainty yet on when spectrum will be made available to OneWeb and other private players looking to offer satellite broadband or space-based communication services. The indications are that spectrum allocation will take time because clarity is yet to emerge on many issues surrounding it.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), for instance, will have to come up with its recommendation on whether spectrum for satellite broadband should be auctioned or allocated through an administered process. Without this, the other approvals granted by the various departments of the government lose significance. The government must act in unison, and not in silos, to ensure that policies are made and implemented seamlessly to enable the launch of new technologies and services. In this case, a spectrum policy for satellite broadband has failed to take off for lack of clarity within the government on how airwaves must be given out to companies — both Indian and foreign. It has been a divided house so far when it comes to spectrum auction versus administered allocation with many aspirants resisting a bidding process. A few of these entities, including OneWeb, have cited international trends and non-feasibility of auction in space communication, while asking for administered allocation of spectrum. Globally, governments have not opted for auction to give out spectrum, a scarce natural resource, to satcom firms. However, there are other players, such as Reliance Jio — also in the fray for satellite broadband — which are advocating a level playing field across platforms and services to press for the auction method.
In any case, at this point in time, the likelihood of an early decision on this matter from Trai is unlikely because the regulator does not have a chairperson for almost two months after P D Vaghela’s term ended on September 30, 2023. Without a chairperson, it will not be able to issue recommendations. According to the Trai Act, the chairperson shall have the powers of general superintendence and directions in the conduct of the affairs of the authority. What could prolong the appointment is that the government is exploring private-sector candidates to fill the regulatory post. To do so, the Trai Act could possibly require amendments in the upcoming Parliament session. Indeed, this is not a solitary case of a regulatory top post remaining vacant for a long period of time. Other regulators such as the Competition Commission of India were without a chairperson in the recent past, causing delays in decision-making and, therefore, creating hindrances in the functioning of markets. Sunil Bharti Mittal, Bharti Enterprises chairman and co-chair of Eutelsat Group’s board, has noted that approval for OneWeb’s commercial satellite broadband will be a critical step forward in meeting India’s ambition of providing internet connectivity for all and to help realise the Prime Minister’s vision of Digital India. A delay in giving out spectrum would inevitably slow the growth journey of flagship schemes such as Digital India. Business Standard