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Satellite connectivity may come to mainstream phones in India in two years

Satellite connectivity may come to mainstream phones in India in two years
Photo Credit: Pixabay
10 Sep, 2022
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Apple may have limited satellite connectivity to emergency services, and only in the US and Canada, but the feature is set to come to mainstream smartphones in countries like India in the next two years, say industry experts. At the moment, consumer smartphones in India do not support satellite connectivity, and the feature is limited to ‘satphones’, which are used in maritime applications, trekking operations and more.

These users, too, use satphones that come with bulky antennas and specialized software required for such connections. But experts said that Apple’s move represents a growing amount of interest from satellite operators, internet and telecom service providers, and software designers in having regular smartphones to satellite — and India could also benefit in this nascent sector. 

In fact, on September 1, Hiroshi Lockheimer, a senior vice-president at Google, said via a tweet that the company is “designing for satellites” — and the feature could be enabled in the “next version” of Android.

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On the India front, Anil Prakash, director-general of industry body, Satellite Industry Association of India (SIA), said that the government is presently evaluating the prospect of enabling users to get easier access to satellite connectivity — akin to how Apple has enabled the feature on its latest iPhone.

“At present, any usage of satellite connectivity in the consumer space is governed by the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite (GMPCS) clause under the Department of Telecommunications. This clause lays down regulatory guidelines that any individual needs to follow in order to subscribe to satellite connectivity services in India,” Prakash said.

The GMPCS is a clause under the DoT's Unified Licence structure, introduced in the National Telecom Policy, 2012. It allows satellite operators to offer satellite-based connectivity in India, and enables users to seek necessary permissions from the DoT to use satellite phones in the country. 

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Further, on August 26 last year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a set of recommendations to further liberalize and ease the process of acquiring a licence to own and operate a satellite phone in India. It paved the way for firms like Elon Musk-backed Starlink, and Sunil Bharti Mittal’s Airtel-backed OneWeb to provide services in India.

But there are other challenges too. In June 2017, state-run telco Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) launched the Global Satellite Phone Service (GSPS) in partnership with UK-based satellite operator Inmarsat. The pan-India service enabled any customer to be able to licence and use a satellite phone, with Inmarsat’s ISAT Phone-II listed by BSNL as an eligible device. The phone costs around ₹70,000, and the initial tariff of the GSPS service was pegged at ₹35 per minute for local satellite calls — and ₹260 per minute for national roaming. Needless to say, this is significantly more than calls cost on regular phones.

Prakash said that consumers will need to pay for the spectrum usage charge (SUC) of a satellite connection, which is around ₹15,000 per annum right now. “Such charges would prevent satellite services from being scaled — and DoT’s future revisions of satellite connectivity are expected to significantly bring this down,” he added.

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To be sure, such charges are applicable globally, but policies could help bring in consumer segment companies into the satellite sphere — thus easing out the charges. Apple, for instance, is offering satellite connectivity (albeit in emergency-only mode) for free for the first two years.

Charges aside, acquiring licences is also a hurdle. At present, BSNL’s customers are required to procure a certificate of authorization from the DoT, which has to be submitted with the company’s customer acquisition form, in order to be processed. “The process right now is complicated, which is what the DoT is presently working to simplify based on TRAI’s recommendations,” Prakash said.

Rishi Anand, partner at law firm DSK Legal, said that the government presently does not have a “public auction for the purchase of satellite spectrum”. “There has been chatter around the telecom industry on easing regulations for satellite connectivity, but there has been no statutory amendment to enable the feature in smartphones,” he added. 

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Anand also highlighted that given the threat of satellite phones being used in “terrorist activities”, any regulation will take a “cautious approach”. Prakash said that changes will take at least two to three years.

In the meanwhile, companies like India’s Nelco and Canadian Telesat are working on bringing satellite services for enterprises in India. Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb, too, is expected to tie-up with telcos here eventually. While such firms may not target regular consumers per se, they may not have to provide services only to those who buy satphones either.