Telecom operators clashed on predictable lines in comment submissions for the auctioning of satellite spectrum. Telecom operators Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea told the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that satellite spectrum should be auctioned; meanwhile, Bharti Airtel said spectrum should be administratively assigned. 

This is a culmination of a nearly two year public debate preceding the likely introduction of low earth orbit technology for broadband purposes in India this year. The leading players, who could start offering high-speed Internet services using satellite technology in India this year or next, are Sunil Bharti Mittal’s OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink, who have complete LEO constellations already operational in certain parts of the world such as Europe and North America. While Reliance Jio has also thrown its hat into the satellite broadband race in partnership with SES in 2022, experts believe it wishes to block the entry of LEO broadband players into India. 

A key component to make satellite broadband services operational in the country is the allocation of spectrum for satellite broadband. According to international ITU specifications, satellite spectrum is administratively assigned to avoid interference issues. However, Jio and Voda Idea have asked for the auction of satellite spectrum. 

Vodafone Idea believes spectrum assignment for space based communication is quite similar to how spectrum is allocated for IMT (terrestrial communication) purposes, which is through auction.  

Reliance Jio further adds that with rapid advancement in technology, the distance between terrestrial and space based communication is reducing, therefore, satellite spectrum services is a more flexible purpose, and can be used interchangeably for both space and traditional telecommunication purposes. Therefore, satellite spectrum should be auctioned. 

Airtel has called for the administrative assignment of spectrum since it is a shared resource, and multiple players can operate at the same frequency while avoiding interference issues by separating equipment geographically. Airtel’s view is backed by multiple players in the satellite space, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, USIBC (which likely represents SpaceX’s interests) as well as satellite players who are not in the broadband space such as Hughes or Dhruva Space, which is an Indian startup that offers satellite launch services. Dhruva argues that “satellite spectrum can fundamentally not be auctioned.” Interestingly Amazon’s LEO broadband initiative, Project Kuiper has also weighed in, arguing against auction of satellite spectrum. While global satellite companies such as Starlink and Telesat have lobbied against auction of satellite spectrum for the last two years, as they hope to enter the Indian market. Amazon has mostly been silent in these lobbying efforts, giving no indication about whether it will try to enter India or not. 

Introduction of LEO broadband will go against Reliance’s interests in two ways. Firstly Bharti Airtel wants to use its LEO network for backhaul purposes on its terrestrial telecom network. But more importantly LEO broadband players like Starlink, Telesat or Kuiper could increase competition in the high speed broadband space, a market that Reliance wishes to capture with 5G, by providing high speed broadband services on a 5G network. Reliance Jio has previously clashed with Starlink, which has ultimately tempered down its India operations for now. Auction or administrative assignment of satellite spectrum will be the new battleground for clashes between telcos and LEO players now.