The company has applied for a global mobile personal communication by satellite services (GMPCS) according to officials from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). It is the first step towards setting up Starlink’s broadband services in India.
“SpaceX had earlier applied for an experimental license but withdrew it later. They have now applied for a GMPCS licence,” an official was quoted as saying by The Economic Times.
In November 2021, Starlink ran into trouble with the Indian government for accepting pre-orders to deliver its terminals to Indians by charging a nominal fee. The Indian government had then directed Starlink to refund the fees given that the company did not have necessary permissions to operate in India:
“Given the fact that Starlink is not a licensee, the public is advised not to subscribe to Starlink services being advertised,” the DoT said in a press release on November 26.
Documents obtained by MediaNama under the Right to Information Act from the DoT shed light on how Starlink intended to conduct its trials in India, and provide a timeline of sorts as to what transpired in the last two months of 2021 when the company ran afoul of the Indian government.
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Why it matters: The satellite communication space has been gaining prominence of late as many are enthusiastic about its ability to provide broadband connectivity in remote areas.
- Several companies, such as Starlink, OneWeb, among others, have expressed interest in providing internet via satellites in India.
- It is critical to understand what kind of policy measures are sought by the stakeholders in the sector and what its prospects are in India.
Insights into Starlink’s trial application
While Starlink has abandoned its plans to conduct a trial, as reported by Economic Times, it may be useful to examine its plans:
Embarking on trials: Starlink submitted two applications to the DoT to conduct internal evaluation concerning technology and capability demonstration, use case, and ecosystem development.
Its plan was to perform “technology trials over a large area with a large number of user terminals (up to 100) and with a large number of gateway stations (up to 10) for purposes including technology and capability demonstration, product stabilisation, and ecosystem development”.
The response revealed that Starlink’s application sought to import and establish these user terminals and gateway antennas in schools to offer low-latency satellite broadband. As part of the trial, it identified 100 “under-connected schools” around the National Capital Region.
“In particular, we aim to deploy about 20 terminals in schools across New Delhi, as well as another 80 terminals in and around the aspirational district of Nuh, Haryana,” read the document.
Identifying schools: Starlink had planned to continue offering connectivity to these schools even after it obtained a commercial unified licence. It also seems that Starlink’s request for an expedited evaluation did not yield any result. It was planning to commence testing across schools by early 2022.
Here is a list of a few secondary and senior secondary schools which were selected for the trial:
- GGSSS Ahmadbas
- GHS Doha
- GHS Mahun
- GSSS Ferozepur Jhirka
- GSSS Biwan
- GMSSS Raniyala
- GSSS Sakras
- GSSS Pathkhori
- GSSS Rawli
- GHS Neemkhera
- AMSSS HP Bilonda
- GSSS Baded
- AMSSS Mohdnagar
- GSSS Marora
- GSSS Bazidpur
- GMSSSS Nagina
- GHS Bhadas
- GSSS Mandikhera
- GSSS Badarpur
- GSSS Umra
Timeline of Starlink’s run-in with the government: The documents also offer a look into the mess that befell Starlink after the government pulled it up for accepting bookings without a licence, according to a letter sent by the DoT officials on November, 26, 2021.
- Starlink’s response suggests that the company rushed to assuage the DoT by responding on November 29, 2021, in which they clarified that their services had not been launched in India, and it was their global website that was accepting deposits from “interested individuals to establish priority”.
- It discontinued accepting deposits within the next couple of days and requested a meeting with the DoT in an email on November 30, 2021.
- Furthermore, there was another missive on December 24, 2021, calling for Starlink to refund the amount taken from Indian subscribers. It also asked the company to comply with the orders within a fortnight.
- Starlink then informed the DoT that it had sent an email to all its Indian users about a refund on January 6, 2022.
Were trials stuck in limbo: An exchange of emails revealed that a separate conversation was taking place simultaneously over the status of Starlink’s trial applications. It suggested that these applications were mired in a bureaucratic tangle and never moved beyond the corridors of the DoT.
- For example, Starlink said that the DoT’s Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) advised the company to approach the Apex Committee in a letter dated December 15, 2021. The WPC is the National Radio Regulatory Authority responsible for frequency spectrum management. Their statutory function involves issuing licences to establish, maintain, and operate wireless stations.
- The company is seen asking for advice on how to approach the committee. There seems to be no response from the department at the time.
- The company wrote another email on December 21, 2021, requesting a response to its query. It was only then that the DoT issued a response to the company.
- To DoT’s credit, a reminder was sent by the department on May 10, 2022, urging Starlink to furnish documents to the Apex Committee required for evaluation of its application.
- It set a deadline of May 20, 2022, following which the application would be rejected and it seems like Starlink did not follow up with the DoT.
Decoding the spotlight on Starlink: The reason behind Starlink’s popularity lies in the company’s low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation, which is the only one operating all over the world, according to Lt. Gen. AK Bhatt (Retd), Director General, Indian Space Association (ISpA).
Chitrita Chatterjee, Senior Director, Operations, Satcom Industry Association (SIA-India), said that Starlink was developing a low-latency broadband internet system. Latency is crucial as high latency is one of the issues plaguing users of satellite broadband. She added that Starlink’s coverage includes 40 countries. Mahesh Uppal, a telecom analyst who specialises in policy and regulatory aspects of the internet, said that the hype may stem from the fact that the guy who is responsible for SpaceX is somebody who is known to be “geeky and ambitious” besides being a risk-taker with deep pockets.
Uppal said that these factors may threaten established broadband players, as a global enterprise. “Governments are sometimes nervous about not being able to exert control over unorthodox businesses,” he told MediaNama.
However, it must be noted that Starlink is not the only company in the fray to set up a satcom business in India, and the space is seeing sizable investments.
Understanding satellite communication
It helps to clear one thing straight off the bat— there is no difference between broadband provided by satellites and through terrestrial means. A user will not be able to differentiate between the two, Lt. Gen. AK Bhatt told Medianama.
How does it work: Chatterjee explained that the internet (provided by satellites) relies on a signal routed through satellites to a number of ground/ earth stations known as gateways.
Chatterjee stated that gateways relay data to and from the satellite via radio waves/spectrum with the help of a transceiver. The transceiver is connected to a modem at the user end which translates the incoming signal into an internet connection, she added. She expects companies to begin offering their services in 2023, adding that they will need to obtain approval from the Department of Space and procure relevant spectrum to hit the ground running.
What are its advantages: Lt Gen Bhatt informed MediaNama that speeds offered by satellite communication are comparable to 4G but not 5G. He added that the most crucial advantage of satellite communication is that it can connect remote areas which cannot be reached by towers or (optical) fibers.
Chatterjee said that installation and deployment are “quick and simple” with satellites, making them suitable for disaster-prone areas, etc.
“Satellites in space are unaffected by disasters on Earth, so they provide resilience unmatched by terrestrial services,” she said, elaborating that relocating and adding network sites is less complicated and less expensive with a satellite network than with most terrestrial technologies.
Uppal added that it is easy to provide internet using satellites but it doesn’t mean that satellite technologies are limited to this specific purpose. There is fear of competition from satellite services among telecom companies, he suggested.
Challenges staring at the sector: Chatterjee pointed out that “digital and telecom policies have had a predominant focus on terrestrial technologies and a very limited focus on space-based technologies in practice”.
There are other challenges too. Chatterjee said that the financial viability of satellite broadband business models is not proven yet so the Indian government needs to provide financial and policy support to the satcom industry.
- Taxation: Chatterjee also highlighted the need to reconsider the tax structure which, according to her, is quite “onerous and expensive” in India. “A space start-up has to shell out 18% in GST to launch a low-weight satellite from India,” she told MediaNama, urging the state to remove additional taxes and levies which increase bandwidth cost artificially.
- Streamlining clearance: Lt. Gen Bhatt of ISpA said that companies would prefer a “single-window clearance”. He said that a company at present has to approach both— space and telecom departments, which is slightly cumbersome.
- Ease of access: Chatterjee recommended that the upcoming space policy needs to enable “liberalisation and ease of access”. She recommended that satellite service providers in India should be allowed to establish gateways and TT&C (telemetry, tracking and control) centres that could serve both fixed and mobile satellite terminals. She also urged the Union government to provide stability that licence holders need to invest in their networks through the term of the licence by promoting a “swift entry”. She added that key satellite bands need to be preserved, and companies must be allowed full access to the 28GHz band.
Conundrum over spectrum allocation
The most pressing challenge faced by the industry is the possibility of an auction to allocate spectrum to companies. It has been a long-standing demand of Reliance Jio, which is also planning to float a company with SES to provide broadband from space. The Indian government has already indicated that it is leaning towards auctioning the spectrum.
Lt. Gen Bhatt explained that a constellation uses a certain frequency worldwide because frequencies are shared in this sector unlike mobile spectrum which is exclusive. His comments were echoed by Uppal who said that a company will not be looking for exclusive usage because spectrum can be happily reused a kilometre or two from the first earth station.
Uppal said that satellite communication does not work like terrestrial networks. “A company will require spectrum only in those areas where these signals are actually being received and then retransmitted such as earth stations,” he explained, stating that there are only a certain number of earth stations in specific areas.
“I would emphasise here that anybody who is in the space domain would not like the spectrum to be auctioned. It is not auctioned anywhere in the world. The method followed world over is of administration. It is not (a question) of liking and not liking. It is (an) efficient method,” Lt Gen Bhatt told Medianama.
What are the pitfalls of an auction: Lt. Gen. Bhatt elaborated that an auction will lead to segmentation. “It is like a big road; you have divided it into small pieces. The highway of six lanes will now be divided into single lanes. It will be much healthier if all the six lanes are used by anyone,” he said.
Bhatt added that a big player with deep pockets will dominate an auction but one must remember that the sector also consists of small players. “It will be an impediment to them because they will have to procure it from a company which has acquired (spectrum) in an auction which will increase the cost for everyone,” he cautioned, explaining that you cannot earn a lot of money in the satcom space because users are limited.
His concerns were shared by Chatterjee who warned that an auction would decrease the usability of spectrum. “…there is a potential decrease in the quality of the service which consequently lowers its overall value for the operators and for the public interest,” she said.
Uppal said that scarce natural resources rightly demand efficiency in usage. “However, auction is an inefficient way to allocate satellite spectrum because why would a company take spectrum for the whole circle if it only wants spectrum for a certain location,” he said.
He added that satellite spectrum can be “easily and conveniently shared” but it will be difficult to share if spectrum is auctioned for exclusive use.
Why call for an auction: “…players would want to increase cost for potential competition. That’s a normal thing,” Uppal said. He added that an auction is bound to raise the price because it’d be “difficult to justify administrative prices of hundreds of crores”.
When asked about the entry of telecom players into the satcom space, Uppal said that it demonstrates a “relative lack of information (about the satcom sector) across the board”. Telcos seem to want to hedge their bets, Uppal explained.
Bhatt suggested that players demanding an auction of the spectrum may be interpreting (incorrectly) the Supreme Court’s judgement which called for all spectrum to be allocated via auction. He also suggested that many believe an auction will ensure a “level-playing field”.
It should be noted that the Supreme Court has clarified upon its order stating that auction is not the only way to allocate resources.
Furthermore, Bharti Airtel’s Sunil Mittal issued a statement recently that he does not want spectrum to be auctioned for satellite communication. Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises backs OneWeb which launched 36 satellites into space in October 2022. It means that not all telcos are united in their demand for an auction.
In Uppal’s opinion: “…telcos feel threatened by the entry of satellite communications companies and would like satellite companies not to have a cost advantage”.
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