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How Satellite Communications could Propel the Next Boom in the Telecom Space

How Satellite Communications could Propel the Next Boom in the Telecom Space

The nascent satellite communications industry could propel the next big revolution in the telecom space. Where does India stand?

Illustration by Nilanjan Das Illustration by Nilanjan Das

It is possible that two years from now, you will have another dish perched on your balcony or roof—just like the now-ubiquitous DTH dish. This new dish would provide broadband connectivity not just within your house, but also outside of it through the on-ground infrastructure that will be likely connected to satellites hovering 500 km above the Earth’s surface. Welcome to the future of internet and connectivity.

Satellite communication systems have been around for some time, but a lot has changed recently. In the past three years, eight policies directly and indirectly related to satellite communications (or satcom) have been announced. Two policies—Draft Spacecom Policy 2020 and National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018—are shaping the sector in a big way. “The government is enabling an environment through a slew of draft policies, which is spawning a new industry,” says Anil Prakash, Director General, Satcom Industry Association (SIA-India).

The commercial launch of satcom services in India is expected next year, and companies such as Starlink, OneWeb and others are prepping for the big fight. They have plans to send thousands of LEO (low-Earth orbit) satellites into space, and spend billions of dollars to provide global coverage. But their approach and target customers are likely to be different. Bharti Group-backed OneWeb, for instance, is planning to sell services to the government, defence, and businesses such as telcos, airlines, banks, educational institutions, etc. In addition to backhaul (the connection between core and access networks), Starlink would reach consumers directly, and sell them broadband services. “As the economy becomes more digital, alternate technologies for broadband communications will emerge. The NDCP 2018 clearly states the need for alternate technologies to provide connectivity to everyone,” says a senior executive with one of the large satcom firms, on the condition of anonymity.

So how does the LEO satcom work? At first, satellites are placed in orbit, which is 500 to 2,000 km from Earth. These satellites are smaller in size and make 12-16 turns per day around the planet. Since each satellite covers a limited geography (because they are closer to Earth), they work effectively in a constellation (a group of a thousand satellites). For global coverage, a large constellation is required. As these satellites roam around the Earth, they communicate with ground stations where satellite terminals are placed to transmit data from satellite-to-Earth and back.

Today, satcom tech is comparable to terrestrial 5G services in terms of speed and latency. “India has emerged as the second-largest telecom market in the world. Despite the growth in digital broadband connectivity, there are large parts of India that remain digitally unconnected. Satellite communication is a boon for ubiquitous connectivity. Satellite connectivity also complements mobile network connectivity. Apart from commercial applications such as broadband, broadcast and Sat IoT, satcom is vital in defence, coastal security, border surveillance, disaster management, mission critical operations and strategic applications,” says Parag Naik, Co-founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs. Plus, 10 years ago, the upfront capital expenditure to put up satellites was huge. The costs have come down sharply in the past few years.

As per SIA-India, however, there are huge gaps in our broadband network. Estimates suggest we need at least 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots whereas the current number is less than 0.1 million. The BharatNet project aims to connect 250,000 gram panchayats across 650,000 villages. As per the government’s assessment, 10 per cent of these villages cannot be connected through terrestrial networks. It’s easier and faster (and cheaper) to connect any location with satellite broadband because setting up the terrestrial infrastructure requires extensive civil work and approvals. In comparison, satcom requires just ground stations to provide coverage. “By 2025, 12,000-14,000 satellites will be hovering over Earth. These are high-throughput satellites with low latency,” says Prakash.

An October report by Verified Market Research said the size of the global satcom market is expected to increase from $65.68 billion in 2020 to $131.68 billion in 2028, a CAGR of 9.1 per cent. SIA-India expects India’s market share in the global satellite industry pie to rise from 2 per cent in 2021 to 10 per cent before 2030. Experts say higher private sector participation is going to drive this growth. At the launch of space body ISpA (Indian Space Association) recently, PM Narendra Modi said that Indian space has been dominated by a single umbrella of Indian government and government institutions, but there is a need to have no restrictions on Indian talent, whether it is in the public or private sector.

“This is a fast moving area. A lot of trust has been put on the private sector coming into space. Policies have been revised. Technology has been shared. The next couple of years will be critical to ensure that private enterprises are able to contribute in a meaningful manner. My role is to put the private industry on board,” says Pawan Goenka, Chairman of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), a nodal agency under the Department of Space.

This is the second time for the global private sector to take a plunge in space communications. In the 1990s, Iridium, Globalstar, Teledesic and Odyssey entered this area but, barring Iridium, none could scale up due to unfavourable cost economics and weak demand. But now, things are different. India, for instance, has developed over 500 private enterprises over the past decade. “We have laid a strong foundation. The work being done in satellite development, launch vehicles, payloads, remote sensing, data analytics, etc., is phenomenal,” says Prakash. Globally, operators such as Starlink have also developed expertise in making their own satellites, besides building in-house satellite launch capability.

But there could be hiccups. Setting up ground stations or gateways would require regulatory approvals in each country, and there could be inhibitions with conservative regulators. “Any new tech will face challenges, but once the authorities see the larger benefits, the dust settles,” says the satcom operator executive quoted earlier.