Top Players Seek Ways to Lower Cost of Satellite Broadband Services

Top Global satellite players including OneWeb, Hughes, Amazon, and Viasat amongst others want India to allow direct, long-term bandwidth capacity leasing pacts with foreign satellite operators, cut customs duties on satellite gear, and lower the applicable spectrum usage charges (SUC) to 1% of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) to make fast satellite broadband services affordable for mass consumption like mobile services.

In their submissions to the sector regulator, they have also called for replicating the telecom model — of Department of Telecommunications (DoT) as licensor, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) as a regulator, and the Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) as the adjudicator — in satellite communication services as well. This, in place of the current regime of the Department of Space (DoS) playing a combined role of the licensor, regulator, and satellite operator.

Satcom players in India say they can’t directly lease bandwidth capacity from foreign satellite operators. They have to go via DoS, which pushes up final leasing costs by as much as 15-20%, making satellite internet services expensive. In fact, satellite bandwidth leasing cost in India at around Rs 75,000 per Mbps per month is 10 times the global average of Rs 7,500.

Satellite operators have also suggested that India emulate US telecoms regulator, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), by coming up with an “approved list” of foreign satellites from whom Satcom providers in India can lease capacity, and in turn, allay any concerns around national security.

Christopher McLaughlin, chief of government, regulatory affairs & engagement, at OneWeb Communications, has urged Trai to back a level-playing field for foreign satellite operators, saying, “allowing both domestic and foreign satellites to provide bandwidth would ensure consumers benefit from additional offerings, an advanced technology at the most competitive price”.

Such an Open-Sky policy, he said, would allow OneWeb to provide services in India, adding that the company believes its low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation would be able to offer service levels not attainable by traditional geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites in terms of throughput, latency or cost.

Last month, Trai floated a discussion paper, seeking views on ways to make satellite communications more affordable for ordinary consumers. This, at a time, when Bharti-backed OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX Technologies plan to launch fast satellite internet services in India next year and US-based Hughes too is looking to invest in a $500 million high-throughput satellite to boost its satellite operations in the country.

The Broadband India Forum (BIF), in its submission to Trai, said VSAT operators must have the choice to directly execute agreements with (foreign) satellite operators to arrive at flexible commercial terms and make satellite-based services affordable, and that such bandwidth pacts must be for 10-15 years.

The forum, representing satellite biggies like OneWeb, Amazon, Hughes, Viasat, and tech giants such as Facebook and Google, has also backed a cut in “custom duties & levies on satellite-based devices, user terminals and gear needed for setting up gateway earth stations”.

US-based Hughes has suggested that foreign satellite operators get on to a potential list of approved satellites put out by the Indian government — like the FCC model – based on an application for authorization and a technical and security evaluation.

“Criteria such as the establishment of Indian subsidiaries, the bilateral trade relationship with the country of registration for orbital slots can be put for foreign operators and their satellites to be added to the list,” Hughes said in its Trai submission.

Viasat, in turn, has built a strong case for keeping license fees and SUC at the minimum to attract big-ticket investments from global satellite operators. “Terrestrial operators in India have struggled with low average revenue per user (ARPU), which is why it’s logical that keeping fees down will facilitate investment by satellite operators for low-cost, high-throughput solutions for both IoT and consumer services,” it said in its submission.