The Indian satellite communications sector is in the midst of a transition, with a new policy recently announced and several new players, like OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon Kuiper vying to be a part of the country’s high-potential satellite broadband market. 

However, the industry is divided on whether the spectrum should be administratively allocated or auctioned like wireless spectrum. On one end are Bharti Airtel’s OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink, who believe that the spectrum should be distributed administratively, while on the other end are Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, who hold the position that the Government should hold a spectrum auction.

“Trying to auction satellite spectrum is likely to seriously harm the interest of the sector and jeopardize the growth of satellite communications, which the country so desperately needs. Also, by auctioning of the spectrum, the number of players who can participate would be seriously limited. Auction is likely to lead to spectrum wholesalers and entities with deep pockets buying spectrum,” said the Broadband India Forum (BIF) in a consultation paper issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Anti-auction proponents argue that typically, satellite spectrum is assigned administratively in most parts of the world. All the global players, including Amazon, StarLink, Inmarsat, Telesat, Hughes and OneWeb have opposed the idea of spectrum auction for satellite-based services.

“Unlike conventional telecommunication services that mainly involve point-to-point communication, satellite communication necessitates substantial and contiguous spectrum blocks. An auction-based approach could potentially fragment the available spectrum, posing challenges for operators in delivering efficient services,” said L&T in response to the TRAI consultation paper.

On the other hand, the Indian Government is of the opinion that the spectrum which would be used to offer broadband services should be monetized. These broadband services will eventually compete with the traditional broadband services, using terrestrial networks, offered by telcos. The service providers have bought the spectrum at a high cost, so to maintain a level playing field, the spectrum for broadband services should be auctioned.

In India, spectrum auctions usually help the Government earn a significant amount. For instance, the 5G spectrum auction last year led to a windfall of around $18 billion for the Government.

Reliance Jio, the largest Indian telco, and Vodafone Idea, the country’s third-largest service provider, also hold this position. While Vodafone Idea has no plans to introduce satellite-based broadband, Jio has collaborated with SES to bring satellite-based broadband services in the country. 

“It is crucial to ensure that spectrum assignment rules for networks offering competing services are uniform and fair, without granting any stakeholder preferential treatment solely based on network topology or architecture. Auctioning satellite spectrum, therefore, emerges as the sole viable strategy to guarantee a balanced competitive landscape amongst competing providers,” said Reliance Jio in response to the TRAI consultation paper.

Jio further emphasized the importance of the “same service, same rules” approach to ensure a level-playing field for all players. It also mentioned other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Thailand, that have conducted auctions for non-terrestrial networks. Jio might be looking to block the entry of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) players in the Indian satellite market since it would be using geostationary and medium earth orbit constellations to deliver service, while rival Bharti Airtel plans to use LEO satellites. 

In concurrence with Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea said it “strongly urge[s] the Authority to uphold level playing field for all the licensees and recommend spectrum assignment only through auction on a LSA [Licensed Service Areas] basis, without any separate treatment for any service.”

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