The Elon Musk vs Mukesh Ambani battle on whether to auction or allocate satellite spectrum has attracted intervention from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Three sources close to the satcom and the telecommunications space confirmed to businessline that the PMO is meeting with experts to understand the nuances associated with the allocation methods for satellite spectrum. Sources added that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) could be holding back its recommendations on satellite spectrum to await the PMO’s opinion on the matter. 

Players in the race

Musk’s SpaceX hopes to offer satellite-based internet services in remote parts of the country, unconnected by traditional means such as optic fibre or terrestrial telecom networks. Musk is not the only player hoping to enter the burgeoning space-based communication market. Sunil Bharti Mittal’s UK based communications venture OneWeb, and Canadian company Telesat also hope to offer similar satellite broadband or backhaul services using low earth orbit satellite constellations similar to the one used by SpaceX. However, the launch of these services has been inordinately delayed as India mulls on the means of allocation of satellite spectrum. 

The international standards for allocation of satellite spectrum recommend administrative assignment of satellite spectrum. However, the Centre is deliberating whether it can allocate airwaves for satellite communication through auction — a move which is strongly backed by Reliance Jio. If India decides to offer satellite spectrum through auction, it will go against The International Telecommunication Union on the matter and set a completely novel precedent. Especially since no other country offers satellite spectrum through auction, India has also administratively allocated satellite spectrum so far. 

The stalemate

In April, TRAI released a consultation paper seeking feedback on the assignment of spectrum for space based communication service. Four months on, TRAI has deferred in giving its recommendations on the matter. Reliance Jio made clear that it backed auction of satellite spectrum, even though all the other space-com players back administrative assignment of spectrum. The latter argue that since satellite spectrum can be used non exclusively, auctioning away exclusive rights to the spectrum will be an inefficient utilisation of the scarce resource. Reliance Jio harkened back to the Supreme Court’s 2012 judgment related to the 2G scandal arguing that it sets precedent spectrum to be solely allocated through auction. 

The stalemate has been going on for more than two years when OneWeb, Telesat and SpaceX initially started exploring offering space-based communication services in India. Even then, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea had opposed administrative assignment of spectrum. Last year, when SpaceX incorporated in India and started taking pre orders for “Starinks” or ground equipment to connect users to its satellite constellation – a telecom NGO backed by Reliance blocked the move calling the bookings illegal, in the absence of the proper regulatory clearances.

In the past two years, Reliance Jio has also dipped its toes into space communication, initiating a joint venture with SES, a Luxembourg-based communication company, which will leverage SES high throughput geosynchronous equatorial orbital (GEO) satellites. These satellites are a precursor to the LEO technology which is more popular.  

Since then, both SpaceX and OneWeb have applied for the requisite GMPCs license needed to offer space-based communication. However in absence of regulation on the allocation of spectrum, they can scarcely offer satellite services or build ground stations.