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TRAI recommendations to make low-bitrate applications of satellite technology more accessible

The telecom regulator suggested easing regulations and more for improving satellite-based connectivity.

We missed this earlier: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on August 26 released recommendations on a licensing framework for satellite-based connectivity for low bitrate applications. The recommendations cover both commercial and captive usage — the latter referring to satellites under the sole control of one entity. TRAI cited the “constraints of the existing provisions” being lacking to regulate such use-cases. 

Low-bitrate applications and Internet of Things (IoT) devices require low cost, low power, and small-sized terminals that can effectively perform the task of signal transfer with minimum loss. Some of these applications include digital agriculture and text communication in remote areas. Many sparsely populated areas with important economic activities suited for IoT-related services may not have terrestrial coverage or other forms of connectivity. Satellites can help bridge this gap by providing coverage where terrestrial coverage may fall short. These recommendations — drafted under request from the Department of Telecommunications — may be essential in removing the regulatory barriers to deploying them.

You can read our coverage of the consultation paper that led to these recommendations here, and you can read our coverage of telecom operators’ submissions to that consultation here.

What the recommendations say

The consultation paper on this issue covered different models of providing satellite-based connectivity; the various orbits from which satellites operate; spectrum frequency bands to be used for low bitrate applications; availability of satellite capacities; and enabling requirements in licensing framework.

This is what TRAI recommended on these issues:

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  1. Licensees can provide services however they want: For the provision of satellite-based connectivity for IoT and low-bitrate applications, service licensees can provide connectivity as authorised by their license for any kind of network topology, including “Hybrid model, Aggregator model and Direct-to-satellite model,” TRAI said.
  2. Any satellite, any frequency band: “All types of satellite viz. Geo Stationary Orbit (GSO) and Non-GSO (NGSO) satellites and any of the permitted satellite frequency bands may be used for providing satellite-based low-bit-rate connectivity,” TRAI recommended.
  3. License amendment: TRAI recommended that the Unified License be amended to provide for low bitrate applications. The “scope of authorizations of GMPCS service, Commercial VSAT CUG service and NLD service under Unified License and Captive VSAT CUG service license may be suitably amended to include provision of satellite-based low-bit-rate connectivity for IoT devices,” TRAI said. GMPCS is a global satellite communications authorisation that India recognises; VSAT CUG is a type of satellite service that is used by a single enterprise or other restricted entity (Closed User Group); NLD is National Long Distance service.
  4. Foreign satellite bandwidth can be bought: Licensees should be permitted to obtain satellite bandwidth from foreign satellites in all the permitted satellite bands in order to provide satellite-based services, TRAI recommended. “They should be permitted to choose the foreign satellite from the approved list, published for the purpose by the Government and to lease the satellite capacity directly from the chosen foreign satellite and should be mandated to establish the Earth Station in India, corresponding to the chosen foreign satellite system, prior to using the leased capacities,” TRAI said. The Earth Station is the terrestrial access point for satellites. 
  5. Road map on capacity availability: “The Government may come out with a road map detailing schedule of launch of communication satellites and availability of the domestic satellite capacities in India to facilitate the service licensees to plan and optimize their capacity procurement,” TRAI recommended. This would essentially allow people interested in leasing satellite bandwidth for low bitrate applications to have a better idea of pricing and scarcity in the future. 
  6. Affordability: TRAI recommended some measures to make hiring low bitrate satellite bandwidth cheaper, such as permitting the hiring of foreign satellites’ capacities for a longer period than 3–5 years; the removal of facilitation charges by the government when hiring foreign capacities from the approved list of foreign satellites/satellite systems; leasing satellite capacity directly from the chosen foreign satellite, reducing the role of intermediaries; and removing the prevailing Network Operation & Control Center charges. 
  7. Web portal for clearances: The DoT should put in place a “comprehensive, simplified, integrated, end-to-end coordinated, single window online common portal for all the agencies involved in grant of various approvals/permissions/allocations etc, like DoS, DOT, WPC and NOCC,” the regulator recommended. TRAI had recommended a similar portal for right-of-way applications for terrestrial broadband too. All the guidelines, applications forms, fee details, processes, timelines, and application status should be made transparently available on the portal.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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