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Will LEO satellite constellations like OneWeb and Starlink come to India?

Despite the Indian government signaling that it’s open to broadband via satellite, a few key barriers remain.

Source: AT&T Press

On September 8, American telco AT&T announced that it would be partnering with Bharti-backed OneWeb to boost the connectivity of businesses in remote areas. OneWeb is a satellite constellation that provides internet connectivity through several low-earth orbit satellites that blanket the earth. Such constellations only need a gateway anywhere in their coverage area on earth to provide internet connectivity, without sprawling terrestrial cabling on land to connect places in remote areas or at sea.

This is the kind of technology that can be deployed easily, as many satellites are already in the sky, and the groundwork is limited to installing gateways. So when can India, a country with extreme inequality in data access, expect to start supporting LEO constellation broadband from players like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink?

Satcom players seeking opening-up of regulations

The industry pressure on the government to open up regulations in order to allow LEO constellations to operate is slowly building. But there are some key barriers to break down before these services can be offered in India. In November, Elon Musk’s SpaceX wrote to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, saying that “While India has long encouraged satellite operators to deploy gateway earth station facilities within the country, this policy is thwarted by the absence of Ka-band frequency assignments that are required to communicate with those gateway earth stations. SpaceX encourages TRAI and spectrum agencies in India to develop an approval process for these assignments. This effort is fundamental to expanded high-speed broadband service in India.”

When Starlink started taking US$99 refundable deposits in many countries, including India, the local industry protested. As such, the Department of Telecommunications reportedly told SpaceX to first apply for a permit to offer satellite broadband in India.

Starlink is, as an outside player, the underdog. OneWeb, on the other hand, is co-owned by the United Kingdom government and Bharti, Airtel’s parent company. With deep ties to the Indian telecom industry, OneWeb will be ready to offer satellite broadband in India by May 2022, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Bharti Executive Chairman said, adding that the company was “working feverishly” to roll the service out.

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Regulatory approvals

While regulatory approvals are not yet on the table, the government has signalled in a series of policies and statements that it is open to the idea of satellite broadband.

The Department of Telecommunications released the spacecom policy last year that lent recognition to satellite internet, and even said that it would take charge to deploy satellite broadband in rural areas, where commercial deployment may not be financially feasible. Satellite broadband is currently being delivered to Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep archipelago.

More significantly, a top government official said last month that “DoT will shortly send a reference to Trai, seeking suggestions on ways to create an enabling regulatory environment for deploying new satellite technologies like LEO constellations, and also explore a geography-specific licencing framework.” The official, DDG (Satellite) at the DoT, was referring to some satellite operators’ wish to serve only specific markets.

While that process plays out, there are reasons for hope and caution. Hope because, like SpaceX pointed out to the government, these satellite constellations are already in the sky; they can start providing internet soon after paperwork on the ground is sorted out. Caution because, well, there’s a bit of paperwork to do. Even with in-flight communications, the government dragged its feet citing security concerns and lawful interception related to the use of foreign satellites. TRAI reiterated its recommendations, pointing out that not using foreign satellites for flight WiFi was not feasible. Expect similarly sticky questions to emerge from the government’s deliberation on satellite constellations.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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