As a space scientist and an ardent believer in space colonization being the next step in human evolution, my day begins with reading space news and particularly all news ISRO. After beginning my professional tryst with space, last week was the first time I interacted in person with space experts from across the world. A big thank you to the Observer Research Foundation, a prominent policy think tank in India for organising the 3rd Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Policy Dialogue and also for keeping the registration free!
I present in this article my takeaways from the panel discussions on Transponder Capacity for Broadcasting and Broadband over India. I will cover the other panels in subsequent posts. Being mostly from the space segment, the speakers focused on the SatCom aspects of telecom and the current issues surrounding its regulation. Before outlining the interesting points made by the speakers who come from commercial and government regulatory backgrounds, here is a brief background on the existing telecom and particularly Satcom scene in India.
The ambitious Digital India campaign launched by the Indian Government in 2015 towards digital empowerment of the country and creation of a knowledge-based society. Several state departments and entities such as the State Bank of India, BSNL and private players such as Oracle, Savera Digital India are joining hands to make the campaign successful through their innovative initiatives. Within 6 months of launching the campaign, the Department of Telecommunication has achieved 82.93% teledensity with 50.63% rural teledensity. A Postal Banking system facilitating all banking services and Common Services Centers providing online access to pension were established. The State Bank of India partnered with Oracle Corporation India to create a corporate volunteering programme wherein they use their staff and equipment resources to train students from underprivileged schools in using information, communication and technology (ICT) tools. Given the scale of this campaign, Satcom technologies and their regulation in the country will play a key role in shaping the trajectory of more or less most of the initiatives involved.
Even though the entire country is almost connected by mobile phones and wireless connectivity is growing rapidly with smart-phones getting cheaper and hence more accessible, the internet connectivity is still a dire 15 percent. Speaking on the same, at the ‘India Satcom – 2016’ International Summit on the theme of Broadband for all using NextGen Satellite Technologies, the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) called for an Open Sky Policy for satellites usage in addition to the formulation of a comprehensive SatCom Policy. It was in 2004 that TRAI released a detailed report “Broadband India: Recommendations on Accelerating Growth of Internet and Broadband Penetration” which essentially called for an Open Sky Policy for the first time in India.
In the Indian scenario of SatCom, the Open Sky Policy basically calls for allowing the VSAT and DTH service providers in the country to directly access transponders owned and operated on foreign satellites. The VSAT and DTH operators in India are required to only use the transponders present on the Indian INSAT communication satellites. When the Indian capacity is insufficient, the foreign transponders could be used only through the Department of Space. Moreover, the license terms are such that the proposals requesting use of Indian transponders is given preferential treatment. It is to be noted that operation in the C-band was relatively liberalised few years ago but for the foreign satellite provider having to seek clearance for their offering and the end user having to take a Wireless Operation License from the Ministry of Communications & IT (WPC license). But access to the Ku-band is strictly through the Department of Space.
The government however, has refused the Open Sky Policy then due to the concerns raised by several security agencies of the countries that without government’s involvement in the telecommunication chain, it would become difficult to keep track of the content in the communication. Using only the transponders owned by the Department of Space or those vetted by it can avoid this risk. Another reason was that the Department of Space didn’t foresee the kind of DTH operator crowding that exists today. The TRAI report of 2004 had attempted to address the security concern. It reasoned that, even though VSAT deployments route their connectivity through a foreign satellite, since the hub-station will be located in the Indian territory, all data which is routed through a particular VSAT network will also be routed through the Indian territory through the hub-station.
However, this rationale holds good only when the VSAT network configuration follows a star topology. A VSAT network comprises the communication satellite usually in the Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), the VSAT terminals and a hub-station with larger (compared to the VSAT terminal) antenna. There exist several network topologies such as – Point-to-Point Topology where in two VSAT terminals communicate with each other directly through the satellite using a dedicated link without needing the hub-station; Star Topology where in the VSAT terminals communicate only through the hub-station and the satellite. Any data passing through the satellite will pass through the hub-station; Mesh Topology where in the VSAT terminals can communicate directly with each other without the need for a hub-station or a satellite. However, the equipment will be more complex so as to handle communication with multiple terminals and can even be as complex as that of a hub-station. Moreover, the antenna specifications will be different compared to a star topology; Hybrid type which is a combination of mesh and star topologies is more common lately. Some VSAT terminals communicate through the hub-station while some communicate directly with one another.
Furthermore, TRAI published a pre-consultation paper on Infrastructure sharing in broadcasting TV distribution sector that received much constructive feedback from commercial players such as Tata sky, videocon, Dish TV, etc, but I’ll address this in a separate post later.
The first speaker was R Ashok, a former member of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). He began with praising ISRO’s socio-economic initiatives such as the tele-medicine and tele-education but underscoring the primary challenge in these programmes – which is the requirement of large scale infrastructure. Effective communication of medical expertise or classroom sessions cannot make do with 5 inch smartphone screens but require large display screens. He claimed that most of the INSAT transponders were used for social, national security and internal safety purposes with very little available for commercial use. Speaking of the access to transponders, the government has liberalised the C-band a few years ago with an open skies policy and requiring only one clearance from the Ministry of Telecom. However, the C-band requires 1 meter to 2.5 meter wide antenna which is not suitable for home use. The Ku-band on the other hand requires half a meter small antenna and 60% of DTH users use Ku band. This spectrum is not yet liberalised and is under closed skies, meaning permissions to access transponder space are routed through Antrix under the Department of Space. This routing results in time overruns of 2-3 years. Moreover, the lease period is only 3 years. This short lease period is a major drawback because the lifetime of a communication satellite in GEO is about 15-20 years and the satellite operator looks for longer lease periods since 90% of the satellite cost is incurred upfront and lease contracts of long duration at the beginning of operations promising a return on investment (ROI) are obviously preferred. Also, preference is given when the entire transponder capacity is sought rather than in small chunks. Another significant point made by Ashok was that the Indian transponders cost much more than the market costs. (*This is only true when comparing the single beam INSATs with the globally trending multi-beam High Throughput Satellites HTS. But when compared with their single beam peers, INSAT offers cheaper transponder space, as mentioned by K Krishna of Hughes India in the later part of this article) Liberalisation of satellite based broadcasting and broadband regulations would benefit the commercial service providers by giving them access to cheaper transponders which would in turn enable the rural populations to afford broadband and makes socio-economic sense ultimately. Also, satellite communication systems can significantly augment existing terrestrial data routes by acting as a backup to the terrestrial network which is much prone to riots, attacks and weather.
K Krishna who is the CTO & Regulatory Head of Hughes Communications India Ltd., provided a lot of interesting statistics to make his case. According to Eutelsat, connecting the last 10-20% of economy will be 10-20 times more expensive using the terrestrial telecom network. In the Indian Satcom scene which is a $125 Billion industry, the major conflict of interest arises from the Department of Space being the regulator as well as a service provider. Indian capacity costing $12000 per Mbps per annum (including ground segment costs) is cheaper than the global costs at $15000 per Mbps per annum meaning Indian communication satellites have certainly matured in terms of performance. However, they are mostly under 10Gbps in terms of overall capacity. The global price points per Mbps per annum are now dropping to as low as $4000 because of High Throughput Satellites (HTS). HTS uses spot beam technology to provide 2-20 times more throughput using the same amount of allocated orbital spectrum compared to a traditional single beam communication satellite. Hughes was able to place a 220 Gbps communication satellite over the US region largely due to such throughputs being made possible by the Ka band. Operating only in the Ka-band, a HTS satellite can further bring down the costs to $1500 per Mbps per annum. Given the aim of Digital India to bring online the rural and remote areas, reducing the costs of Satcom is of highest importance. So as not to overburden ISRO with building commercial capacity and since the industry is currently capable of building Ka-band HTS satellites, he recommends participation of private companies like Hughes that have enough resources to invest towards commercialisation and thereby cheaper access. ISRO would then be able to spend more time on R&D that cannot be undertaken by private entities. He also opined that being under the DoS, Antrix cannot freely exercise its business acumen in marketing and selling capacity and is continually subject to government audits. Therefore it’s high time that Antrix is separated from DoS and as an autonomous body take the lead in regulating the lease contracts. Hughes has applied for launching their own satellite and has made an estimate that 30000-40000 locations can be connected by a single satellite against the government estimate of 3000 sites. He made an interesting point that a subsidy based model like the one initially introduced for mobile phone connectivity in the country almost two decades ago, will not be sustainable for SatCom. Hughes is willing to put in an investment of $500 million for putting up a satellite in space. If Hughes did a good job, it would begin to roll in profits and succeed, else will fail and lose its investment. There is no need for a subsidy, all Hughes needs is the permission to do so, which is obviously a required step towards Digital India.
Prashant Butani is a Senior Sales Director for South Asia from MEASAT, which owns a fleet of 6 communication satellites from Australia to West Africa. They ahve been operating in the C and Ku bands for the last 20 years and have also done business with Indian service providers, through Antrix. He opines that just like in the mobile phone telecom market where Jio still had space to disrupt even with the presence of a multitude of existing older players, there is enough market and demand in the Indian Satcom sector for foreign players to enter and compete. He states that MEASAT intends to to augment and not replace the INSAT capacity and that both of their satellites will have a level playing field. With FreeDish, the state-controlled free digital direct broadcast TV service growing 20-30 times, there is demand for free providers as well as paid subscriptions. The investments in HD content are rapidly rising and now 4K has also entered the market. He emphasises that the market is more than sufficiently deep in different directions be it free or paid TV, standard definition or HD or 4K and that there is enough place for all kinds of players to fill up their satellites.
D S Govindarajan is the President of the global SatCom technology solutions company Aniara Space. His opening remarks that people and especially satcom commercial players with huge investments do not like uncertainty very succinctly underscored the panel’s collective views on the regulatory environment in the Indian Satcom scene. A noteworthy suggestion was for the government to publish their INSAT capacity inventory along with a list of allowed foreign capacity that can be used. In comparison, the current norm is that, Antrix aggregates all the transponder requests received from DTH service providers and then floats the combined requirements to foreign satellite operators. Towards removing the uncertainty and providing better clarity in the Satcom business, he opines private players should be involved in the planning process. An independent body is to be established that works with all stakeholders and clearly defines the supply and demand requirements. Since there is no enough capacity within the INSAT satellites, private players are to be encouraged to operate capacity to meet the demand. And given the high domestic demand, there is always room for all stakeholders.
The brief talks by the panel speakers were followed by several thought provoking questions from the rather knowledgeable audience.
To the question on what exactly is meant by preference for Indian capacity under the SatCom Policy of India, K Krishna of Hughes Communications India answered that the policy was very much outdated, had many loose ends and did not clearly define preference. Furthermore, there are no defined time lines on expected response from the government to the domestic satellite service provider after submitting an application. The government needs to truly feel in spirit the requirement of private players only after which can the policy be effectively implemented.
To the question whether getting customers or capacity is more challenging to a domestic service provider, Krishna replied that the scenario changes every year and is often both. Any Satcom service provider faces these challenges since only the spectrum leftover from the terrestrial network is given to SatCom providers. Hopefully, new technology would change this. On the other hand, Indians are not always willing to pay for getting a broadband service and more unwilling to pay more for Satcom. The biggest customers are the mobile users followed by community kiosks.
To the question whether there really is a capacity crunch and is it hyped that india needs tons of transponders, Krishna answered that though the Government lists 0 pending capacity lease applications because it takes 3 years for getting an application serviced thereby discouraging service providers from even making an application and not due to lack of capacity demand.
When an audience member questioned why there is a limit to capacity when spectrum is a free natural resource, Krishna responded that spectrum is never the issue but only the regulations. (*Spectrum though a ‘free’ resource, needs to be regulated so as to avoid interference. Though it is technically infinite and unlimited, current state of technology defines the bandwidth that can be effectively utilised. )
Another interesting point made by an audience member was that since there are limitations each band after some period owing to rise in demand, there is a need to look for newer technologies. Enabling such endeavours would require the independence of the regulatory mechanism.
Ashok concluded the session by saying that the solution lies in a better coordination between the TRAi, the Department of Space and the Department of Telecom on the technical and policy fronts. The Ka-band is quickly catching up globally owing to its lesser rain attenuation compared to the Ku band and also its smallest antenna size so far, which is about 30 cms compared to the 60 cms Ku-band antenna and the 1-2 meters long C-band antenna. But Ka bands are not allowed for commercial use in India in spite of the growing need for wider and faster data networks given the rising popularity of cloud computing, Internet of Things, HD and ultra HD.