What is a Satellite Broadband Service?
Broadband essentially means a wide bandwidth, high-capacity data transmission technique, using a broad range of frequencies. In the case of a satellite broadband service, broadband services are delivered directly via satellites instead of optical fibre or mobile networks.
How is it different from existing broadband services?
The main difference between satellite broadband services and the more popular terrestrial means for providing broadband services is that aggregation of all the data generated and transmitted by users accessing the internet happens in the sky or space, that is in the satellite. In contrast to this, if we take a look at cellular networks, a very popular means through which broadband services are provided in India, aggregation happens on the ground, in the base stations. This is the case for any other terrestrial means of providing broadband — be it optical fibre, cable, etc.
Another key difference is that to access satellite services, we will need a dish antenna just like we do in the case of TV services, so a normal mobile handset cannot directly access satellite broadband. For a user to access satellite broadband a clear line of sight to the satellite is needed.
What advantages does it offer?
The main advantage of satellite services is that you can provide high-speed internet services in remote areas, where terrestrial networks cannot be set up, for instance in the middle of the ocean, in rugged unreachable terrain such as the Himalayas — even as remote as on top of Mount Everest! In a country with a wide range of geographies such as India, this is especially pertinent, given that 20-25 per cent of the Indian population resides in areas where it is extremely hard for terrestrial operators to set up shop.
Who is offering it and when will it be available in India?
Currently, VSAT operators offer satellite broadband services at a very limited capacity in India in a few remote locations. The utilisation of satellite services for broadband services is restricted to minimal applications — such as disaster management, defence, scientific locations, etc. Key hurdles are high latency of these services, which means that real-time transmission is hard.
Things are changing, however, with the launch of ISRO’s high throughput GEO (Geostationary Equitorial Orbit) satellites a few years ago, which can beam high-speed internet. up to 300 gigabytes per second. That apart, many global players look to provide satellite broadband services in India by deploying low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. They are launching a constellation of satellites very close to the earth’s surface in order to reduce the latency of satellite broadband. Presently, Elon Musk’s Starlink, Sunil Bharti Mittal backed OneWeb and the Canadian satellite major Telesat are eyeing the Indian market.
When will these services be available in India?
If things go as planned and the players get necessary regulatory clearance, these services could become operational in India as soon as next year. OneWeb wants to provide backhaul services to telcos by mid next year, while Starlink wants to provide direct broadband services by December 2022, aiming at 2 lakh terminals. Telesat, on the other hand, is eyeing an India launch by 2024.
How much will it cost?
The provision of direct broadband services through satellites will be pricey. According to a user guide for India, provided by Starlink, the first-year cost of a Starlink terminal will be ₹1,58,000 after which it will cost around ₹1,15,000 every year. This can prove to be a major hurdle for the Indian market (especially rural) which delivers low average revenue per user. This is why both OneWeb and Telesat are going the B2B route for their services, looking to provide backhaul services for mobile operators in rural geographies as well as enterprise services. Starlink, on the other hand, thinks that there is a business case for direct satellite broadband even with high costs.
Has it been rolled out in other parts of the world?
It is early days. Starlink and OneWeb are still launching satellites that will be a part of their LEO constellation. Telesat will start creating its constellation in 2023 and be operational worldwide by 2024. However, as of this year, Starlink is operational in 14 countries, with 1 lakh terminals shipped to North America and Europe.