Nelco Ltd., part of the TATA Group, has over three decades of experience as a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) service provider in India. To meet customer needs, it has successfully brought congruence between foreign satellites and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) platforms in its operations. It endeavours to continue with this ‘neutrality’ with futuristic technology as well.
Nelco has signed an agreement with the satellite communications company Telesat for using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites with an eye on the future. However, the future contours of Indian usage of satellite technology will largely depend upon its fiscal policy towards space-based technology.
At present, the satellite industry is dominated by the public sector, which initially created India's space industry. Satellite-based communications in the civil segment are confined to rendering services in remote areas bereft of reliable telecom infrastructure. However, due to the broadcast feature of VSAT, it has found a marginal presence in inflight communications and distance learning projects.
Technology has presented companies like Nelco with commercial challenges. They have faced stiff competition from terrestrial networks like Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and 4G due to heavy applications and low latency. Costs themselves make current satellite communications unviable as a private venture, especially when their applications are bandwidth-hungry. Furthermore, the price points of government regulation are a significant bottleneck for space-based consumer broadband.
First and foremost, there has to be levelling of the playing field between terrestrial networks and space infrastructure. This will be feasible once the spectrum efficiency of satellite communications, presently far below 5G networks, is enhanced. This will enable the closing of the yawning gap between price points of satellite and terrestrial networks.
The government must recognise the opportunities for change and bring about a policy regime to encourage space-based communications. For example, currently, the regulations do not permit companies to provide antennas below a specific size. However, several applications can be run on antennas under one meter, effectively reducing infrastructural requirements and associated costs.
Another issue is that VSAT operators do not have the liberty to choose a spectrum band. Companies like Nelco have to function within the K Band or C Band. However, some applications can be efficiently run on the L Band and S band as well.
Finally, the issuing of multiple licensing is cumbersome. Separate licences lead to variance in infrastructure as per a particular customer set, thus adding to the overall cost. This can be very restrictive for VSAT operators.
It is hoped that the new Satellite Communications Policy will take all these factors into account and incorporate long overdue changes.
P.J. Nath is the Managing Director and CEO of Nelco Ltd. Before this, he was the Executive President for Enterprise Business of Sify Technologies Ltd. This article is written by the Synergia Research team based on insights shared by the expert at the round table titled ‘Empowering the Internet through Space: Limitations, challenges, and the future’ on 21 January 2021.