Indian elections delay nation’s satellite broadband plans


The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) says the election could set back spectrum allocations by up to six months

This week, reports suggest that the Indian government is likely to delay spectrum allocations for satellite broadband providers by four to six months, with the DoT waiting for results of the general election to become clear.

India is currently conducting the largest general election process in history, with around 970 million eligible voters set to vote over 44 days. Results are set to be declared on June 4.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the favourite to win a third term in office, but the potential of a new administration has left the DoT uneasy about finalising its novel spectrum strategy.

In fact, sources suggest that the DoT may ask the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to reinitiate consultations on the matter, to ensure that the allocation methodology is sound and futureproofed.

Satellite broadband services are a novel concept for the Indian market. TRAI began initial consultation on how to allocate satellite spectrum begun in 2022. However, before any conclusions from this process could be drawn, the government passed a new Telecommunications Bill, overhauling the regulatory framework for the entire sector. This made the results of the satellite spectrum consultation redundant, instead paving the way for satellite operators to be allocated spectrum directly, without the need for a lengthy auction period.

But despite seemingly removing a significant regulatory hurdle for spectrum allocation, the process itself remained relatively undefined. The DoT quickly began the process of finalising the terms of reference for the spectrum allocation, including identifying specific frequencies to be used, pricing, and terms and conditions related to national security.

This process was, according to reports last month, just weeks from conclusion. Now, however, sources suggest the government will wait until after the elections, potentially even asking TRAI to perform further consultations.

The news will come as a major blow to satellite operators like Elon Musk’s SpaceX (Starlink) and Bharti Airtel-backed OneWeb, both of whom have been seeking to launch services in the country for years.

It should be noted, however, that being allocated spectrum is just one half of the regulatory challenge facing satellite operators, who must also be granted a global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) operating licence by the government.

So far, only OneWeb and Jio Satellite Communications have received GMPCS licences, leaving them ready to begin commercial services as soon as spectrum is allocated.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has been embroiled in regulatory turmoil over acquiring a GMPCS licence for over two years, with the government wary over issues related to national security. Earlier this year, however, Starlink finally gained in-principle approval from the government, suggesting GMPCS approval should be imminent.

Amazon’s burgeoning satellite broadband unit, Project Kuiper, has yet to finalise its GMPCS application.

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