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ISRO asks telecom department to not regulate satellite spectrum in Telecom Bill

The updated draft telecom bill will aim to lay down the guidelines for satellite spectrum — which the government might explicitly differentiate from terrestrial spectrum — but may not regulate it, according to officials.

In the draft bill released last month, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had extended the definition of “telecommunication services” to satellite-based communication services. Currently, the government has exclusive rights to establish, operate, maintain and expand all telecom services; and use, allocate and assign spectrum.

Satellite or orbit spectrum is a segment of a radio spectrum that becomes available when satellites are placed into orbit. This spectrum is a limited resource for every country, used by companies to implement satellite broadcasting, communication satellite, and weather satellite services. On the other hand, terrestrial spectrum refers to the transmission of signals via radio waves from Earth-based transmitters.

The limited quality of satellite spectrum, the global shared nature of radio waves, and its vast, yet unrealised industrial and scientific use cases have prompted Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to ask the telecom department to not regulate it as part of the revised bill.

Last week, ISRO Chairman S Somanath said satellite spectrum should be separately regulated and not be clubbed with terrestrial spectrum under the proposed new law. Industry players have also stressed that spectrum allocation through auction mechanisms will lead to a situation where usage could be restricted to a single player, affecting the digital India road map of providing broadband to the masses.

Industry against auction
OneWeb, a Bharti group venture, recently launched 36 communication satellites into space. The mission was procured by ISRO’s newly-functional commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited. After the launch, Bharti Enterprises Chairman Sunil Mittal had argued that satellite spectrum shouldn’t be auctioned on the lines of terrestrial spectrum since the business case is very small.

“You cannot have 1,000 Mhz at Rs 7,000 crore to serve two 15-acre spots in the country,” he had said. Also since satellite services are not competing with mobile telephony, such auctions can’t be justified, and India may miss out on the crucial opportunity to significantly expand satellite services, he had argued.

As of now, spectrum for satellite broadband services that stakeholders want to be offered administratively is not on the administrative list and is likely to be auctioned. Officials did not confirm whether the government would immediately add satellite spectrum to the list.

Besides OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper is also aiming to provide internet via satellite in India. Others like Telesat and Elon Musk’s Starlink, too, are keen on the Indian market. Businesses are bullish since all that is required for a location to receive connectivity from the satellite is a clear, unobstructed view of the sky. In contrast, terrestrial technologies are limited in their coverage area.

Currently, satellite spectrum usage is governed through specific technical and financial terms and conditions laid down in the licences issued by the government, according to provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933.

Global ambitions
Officials added that the prospect of not unilaterally regulating the sector also stemmed from India’s bid to take the lead globally in negotiating norms over satellite communications. India recently won a key segment of the elections at the International Telecommunication Union’s Radio Regulations Board (RRB).

The board members meet up to four times a year in Geneva and approve the rules of procedure, used in applying the provisions of radio regulations and registering frequency assignments made by the member states.

Revathi Mannepalli, India’s candidate for member, RRB, won the elections with the support of 139 out of 180 countries that voted. She got the highest number of votes in East Asia and West Asia. Officials said the Ministry of External Affairs had asked each and every Indian mission abroad to campaign on behalf of Mannepalli and for India’s position in the RRB. Business Standard

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