The Seemingly Immovable Object Standing in the Way of India’s Satellite Internet Ambitions

Existing satellite capacity can be used for Digital India if the DoT can bypass DoS and ISRO to negotiate with private operators – but is this possible?

GSAT-6, also known as INSAT-4E, is India's twelfth GSAT communication satellite. It was launched on August 27, 2015. Credit: ISRO

GSAT-6, also known as INSAT-4E, is India’s twelfth GSAT communication satellite. It was launched on August 27, 2015. Credit: ISRO

New Delhi: Neha Satak, co-founder and CEO of Bangalore-based Astrome Technologies, wants to send a bunch of satellites into space.

A difficult task for sure, but not particularly insurmountable especially after the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) shattered records and launched over 100 satellites in one go last week.

Satak’s constellation of satellites, however, is being sent up for the express purpose of beaming down high-speed broadband-levels of Internet connectivity to hitherto unconnected parts of India.

If Satak and a host of other Indian and foreign multinational corporations (OneWeb-Bharti, SpaceX, etc.) succeed, it will be the first time in the twenty years since India’s department of space (DoS) came out with its official (and only) satellite communications policy for private players.

Barring a few use-cases such as satellite backhaul or VSAT terminals at ATMs, India has no satellite broadband to speak of. To be sure, there are technical obstacles that have always been an issue and still are. However – as most participants of a space policy dialogue organised recently by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) pointed out – legal, policy and regulatory challenges have combined to stop broadband services from being offered in India by both multinational and Indian communication satellite companies.

“I would say there is some disagreement between various stakeholders. What types of spectrum bands should be open?” asked K. Krishna, the chief technology officer of Hughes Communications India, Ltd., during a panel discussion on ‘Transponder Capacity for Broadcasting and Broadband Over India’.

Other crucial questions that participants of the dialogue believed have held back satellite broadband: Is the foreign direct investment route in satellite manufacturing as open as it should be? Should policy, regulatory and licensing functions all reside in what is essentially one big entity? What potential does satellite broadband have in India?

L’affair Antrix-Devas

The basic principle behind satellite broadband is simple, Satak points out. The idea of using a physical object (like a satellite) in space to reflect signals for communication was established both theoretically and practically as far back as the early 1950s, when the US Naval Research Laboratory managed to set up a satellite-based link between Hawaii and Washington.

The technology used by commercial satellite broadband providers mimics a familiar and similarly thriving invention in India: satellite television, where households simply put up a receiver dish on top of their roofs and enjoy direct-to-home television. In the US, companies such as Hughes and ViaSat, both of which were represented at the ORF event, help provide connectivity to roughly 19 million Americans who have no option but to buy a wired broadband connection because they live in areas where it is too expensive or unfeasible to dig and lay optical fibre.

Multiple analyses have shown that aspects of the Narendra Modi government’s Digital India initiative, specifically the BharatNet project, can benefit from satellite broadband. Remote, unconnected areas that struggle with basic needs such as electricity are a prime area for satellite intervention apart from the usual mountainous or other similar inhospitable terrain where space broadband scores over its fibre counterpart.

And yet, there are simple disagreements between the private sector and government organisations such as ISRO and the DoS on the other. How many potential sites in India could benefit from satellite broadband? According to Krishna, while many government officials believe the number of geographical areas to be around 3,000, it could be as high as “between 10,000 to 30,000” different sites.

Perhaps the most prominent effort at enabling satellite wireless broadband access is the now-infamous Antrix-Devas affair. A 2005 deal between Devas, a Bangalore-based satellite company, and Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, was aimed at bringing low-cost satellite broadband services to millions of Indians. Antrix would build and launch two satellites and then lease the corresponding S-band satellite spectrum to Devas, which in turn would use it to provide Internet services.

By 2011, it all came to a crashing halt. The Comptroller and Auditor General alleged a number of irregularities in the deal. It was cancelled while several senior ISRO scientists stepped down, including former ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair.

Since then, industry sources tell The Wire, ISRO officials have been way of using satellites and spectrum that the organisation controls to provide broadband services. Over the last few years, the Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India have fought to leverage the use of ISRO’s satellites as well as foreign transponder capacity to provide broadband services in India to no avail.

Challenges ahead

Satak’s Astrome, along with a number of other new multinational and Indian start-up initiatives, hope to pick up the satellite broadband threads. Astrome, for instance, is testing its technology now and hopes to be able to launch its satellite constellation by 2020. “We believe in competing on quality,” says Satak. “We should be able to provide a 10-15 mbps connection for Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200. This is what you get now in cities like Bangalore.”

This could be a long shot, however. Broadband Forum of India’s analysis states that the “current per-MB price of data” through satellite communication in India is nearly “300 times” more expensive than existing satellite communication tariffs in the US.

Why is it so exorbitantly high? Multiple stakeholders within the system point out that currently existing high tariffs are caused by a mix of reasons. Once satellite companies, both Indian and foreign, are allowed to start functioning through, say, an updated satcom policy, competition will thrive.

India’s current satcom policy, first rolled out in 1997 and then updated in 2000, is clearly outdated. A senior ISRO official who attended the ORF event (but declined to be identified) pointed out that all the existing satcom policy says is Indian satellite companies will be given preference over foreign multinational companies.

“How does this preference play out? If the department of space is worried about national security concerns, they should lay down clear guidelines for security compliance by foreign satellites. The existing policy doesn’t talk about this, which inevitably leaves it to ISRO, DoS and Antrix’s discretion,” the official told The Wire.

And this discretion has held up multiple applications for satellite manufacturing and foreign direct investment over the last decade. Hughes’ Krishna is particularly frustrated over this. “If a company submits an application for satellite broadband services in India, irrespective of where the satellites will be made, it needs a specific timeline on when it will hear back from ISRO or the DoS. Will it be two years, three years or five years? It is difficult to line up future investments if speedy clearance is not given,” Krishna said.

Licensing and regulatory conundrum

Satellite vendors and companies have other grievances. Company executives say they want Ka-band operations to be opened in India and allowed the usage of Ka HTS satellites, which in turn will make satellite bandwidth eminently more affordable. ISRO and the DoS however have a number of concerns – some of which are quite legitimate (such as fear of interference) and others less so (e.g., national security).

Another point of contention is that, currently, the policymaking, licensing, operational and research functions all are highly concentrated. The DoS takes care of policymaking and licensing whereas operations and research are put into bodies under its control, i.e, namely Antrix and ISRO.

For instance, some believe that if more of these policy and licensing functions are handed over to the Department of Telecommunications or the telecom regulator, it would perhaps allow for a more speedy liberation of satellite communications.

This issue becomes all the more crucial when one leaves aside the question of Indian satellite companies and considers the already existing satellite capacity in India. T.V. Ramachandran, of the Broadband India Forum, has shown that multinational satellite operators already have a footprint of nearly 14 Gbps of bandwidth over India.

If the Department of Telecommunications or the central-government-run Bharat Broadband Network, Ltd. (BBNL) are allowed to negotiate directly with these private operators, without needing express permission from the DoS or Antrix, this existing capacity could be pressed into the service of Digital India.

This, industry executives and government officials say, would mean bypassing the DoS and ISRO. Is this wise? ISRO officials maintain that there are a number of national-security and technical concerns that require the DoS to remain in charge. Satellite company executives and DoT officials, however, believe that the technical functions can still remain with DoS but that issues of national security are overblown and a sign of ISRO trying to protect its own turf.

How this will be resolved is unclear. Satak admits that the process of securing multiple permissions can be a little long-winded and heavily dependent on the DoS. However, she is still optimistic. By 2020, she says, we’ll be getting broadband services from the stars.