The race to provide exhaustive satellite broadband services in India

While satellite communication companies can help in addressing the need of the market for fibre-like connectivity in the remotest parts of the country, one will also have to deal with slow Internet speeds and limited satellite bandwidths because of the distance the signals will have to travel 

Updated - October 03, 2022 04:41 pm IST

Published - October 03, 2022 10:30 am IST

Satellite communication has been gaining prominence globally and is seeing a lot of interest, investments, and innovations.

Satellite communication has been gaining prominence globally and is seeing a lot of interest, investments, and innovations. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The race for providing satellite broadband connectivity in India is heating up as companies like Jio, OneWeb, Hughes, and Tata-backed Nelco are preparing to provide these services.

Satellite communication has been gaining prominence globally and is seeing a lot of interest, investments, and innovations. The two biggest developments in the global satellite communication space are the emergence of LEO (low-earth orbit constellations) which promises to provide truly global coverage and lower latency service, and HTS (High Throughput Satellites Service) which offers unprecedented capacity and flexibility.

India is quickly catching up with global trends and we are optimistic about India’s prospects in the global satellite communication market, Shivaji Chatterjee, executive vice president, Hughes Communications India (HCI) said to The Hindu. Although the satellite broadband industry in India is still at a nascent stage, the growing demand for connectivity and Internet — the Digital India drive — calls to connect all unserved terrains and this is what satellite broadband players like Hughes can do, he added.

However, different reports indicate that although India is about to see the roll out of 5G services, infrastructure woes like inadequate tower fiberisation questions the success of 5G in connecting different parts of the country which do not have even 4G access till now.

Different satcom players

Different players offering satellite broadband services are preparing to start operations in the country.

Jio has received approval from the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), in the second week of this month, to provide satellite broadband services in India. Earlier, in February this year, Jio Platforms Ltd, the digital arm of Reliance Industries (RIL), and Luxembourg’s SES, formed a joint venture, Jio Space Technology Ltd to provide satellite-based broadband services in India. The DoT has granted the Letter of Intent for global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) services to the company that the firm had applied for earlier this year. The licences are for a period of 20 years and include voice and data services via satellite.

Parallelly, in January this year, satellite communication companies, OneWeb and Hughes Network Systems, announced a six-year agreement, to bring low Earth orbit (LEO) connectivity services to India. OneWeb will then bring these solutions to enterprises, governments, telcos, airline companies, and maritime customers. However, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis forced OneWeb to cancel the planned launch of 36 satellites on Russia’s Soyuz rockets after Russia cancelled its agreement with the Bharti-backed U.K.-based company. This led the satellite major to delay the commercial launch of its satellite communication services in India to early 2023.

OneWeb has also partnered with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to resume its satellite launches. The pending release of the new Spacecom policy by the Department of Space brings a layer of uncertainty over the launch of commercial services in India. The policy is supposed to lay out the guidelines on which the newly liberalised space sector will operate.

Satellite service provider Hughes Communications India, (HCI) and Bharti Airtel announced a joint venture in January to provide satellite broadband services in India. The joint venture was created after the agreement, announced in May 2019, and received all statutory approvals, including those from the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) and the Department of Telecom. Last week, HCI also announced the commercial launch of India’s first HTS broadband service to deliver high-speed broadband across the country, including to the most remote areas beyond the reach of terrestrial networks. HTS provides more throughput than conventional communication satellites. Higher throughput refers to higher data processing and transfer capacity than conventional satellites while using the same amount of orbital spectrum.

Tata-owned satcom company Nelco, and Canada’s Telesat have also successfully conducted the first in-orbit demonstration of high-speed broadband connectivity in India in May this year. Telesat services will deliver significant benefits for applications like 4G/5G backhaul, mobile hotspots, telemedicine, village connectivity, and more, P. J. Nath, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of NELCO said in a press release. Telesat will also help accelerate 4G and 5G expansion, and set new levels of performance for enterprise, telecom, mobility, and government broadband connectivity on land, air, and sea, Glenn Katz, Telesat’s Chief Commercial Officer said in a release.

Changing the Internet landscape

Satcom companies reckon that satellite broadband services can connect the most remote parts of the country which are otherwise difficult to connect through fibres. Satellite broadband services can, therefore, help in addressing the need of the market for fibre-like connectivity in the remotest parts of the country with high reliability and flexibility, Mr. Nath said. Mr. Chatterjee also echoed the sentiment by stating that the rollout of satellite broadband communication services can close the digital divide in India.

For example, Hughes India has partnered with Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL) and Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd. (TCIL), as part of BharatNet, to provide high-speed satellite connectivity to 5,000 remote gram panchayats. These panchayats are located in northeastern States, including Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh — places that lack terrestrial connectivity like fibre or cable. With the Bharatnet project, India aims to better facilitate e-governance applications like telemedicine, access to land records, treasury, police stations, Internet access, and many other services in rural India.

“We are going to see a very open market space where there is going to be, foreign operators, In Flight and Maritime Connectivity (IFMC) providers, Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) service providers, all of them being able to provide connectivity and, they will all be able to service this whole ecosystem of mobility on land, on water and in the air,” Mr. Chatterjee said.

Challenges ahead

Satellite data transfer provides very slow Internet speeds and limited satellite bandwidth because of the distances the signals have to travel and all the potential obstacles in between, according to Resilio, a technology company. Connection times can also be impacted by your surroundings, the length of your message, and the status and availability of the satellite network.

However, if the user is located under trees with light or medium foliage it might take over a minute to send a message, while the same message takes 15 seconds to be sent in ideal conditions with a direct view of the sky and the horizon. Users might not be able to connect to a satellite at all if they are located under heavy foliage or surrounded by other obstructions, Apple said in a blog earlier this month. The Emergency SOS via satellite might not also work in places above 62° latitude like northern parts of Canada and Alaska.

Additionally, satellite Internet latency can be a significant problem. This can be a matter of only a second or two, but a delay on that scale can seriously affect real-time applications like video chats. Unlike terrestrial communications, minor changes in weather can have a massive impact on both the speed and latency of satellite data, according to Resilio. Because satellite networks are complex, satellite Internet providers like Hughes often charge based on throughput. This along with the complex equipment like satellite dishes being used to avail these services makes the service expensive, the company added.

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