There is renewed interest in satellite communication deployments, with Starlink operated by SpaceX and OneWeb promoted by Bharti Global vying to enter the Indian market for offering satellite broadband connectivity to every corner of the country. There are many issues yet to be resolved including the frequencies to be allocated for satellite broadband, the methodology of allocation, whether it be administrative assignment or through auctions, and the placement and interconnections at the ground stations.  Prior to the era of Internet, there was a flurry of activity around handheld satellite phones (aka SAT phone) in the early 2000s.  

SAT phones rely on a network of satellites for communication.   They are rarely affected by violent storms and, depending upon their system architecture, work virtually anywhere. The devices weigh a few ounces and are about the same size as cell phones. Traditional sat phone buyers are government and public safety agencies, energy companies, shippers, and search and rescue organisations. However, an increasing number of private individuals are also buying SAT phones as a backup against losing their ability to communicate with the world. 

Earth orbit satellites

Robert Galvin, the legendary son of Motorola’s founder and who was then its chairman, gave the green signal for a project that could have become the cornerstone of the communications industry in the 1980s. The ambitious engineers at Motorola’s headquarters at Schaumburg, Illinois, toiled on the architecture of a system of 66 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites placed about 781 km above the earth’s surface, arranged in a necklace configuration covering almost the entire globe, including the north and south poles. 

With much fanfare, Iridium LLC, with funding support from Chinese and Russian governments to the tune of about $2 billion, launched the service on November 1, 1998. However, the satellite service failed to catch the attention of consumers. Nine months after the launch, it had only 20,000 customers. In November 1999, Iridium filed for bankruptcy, much to the chagrin of technology enthusiasts.  

At about the same time, GlobalStar launched a similar network, but with an entirely different architecture, called bent-pipe. This system relied on 48 satellites placed in orbit about 900 miles above the earth, also called Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). Globalstar went bankrupt in 2002. It lost about half of its first-generation satellites and is just trying to rebuild itself.

A regional network, Thuraya, was launched in 1997 and began operations in about 2001. Based in the UAE, it was designed to serve Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Its handsets were dual-mode, which meant that subscribers could roam on both 2G GSM networks as well as talk via satellites in the Geo Stationary Orbit at the height of about 36,000 km. INMARSAT LLC, the UK based company specialising in maritime communication services, also entered the sat phone market in late 2000.  

Handset costs

Why have there been so many unsuccessful attempts in the SAT phone market? The primary reason is the cost of the handset — at around $1,000 compared, it is much costlier than the affordable mobile handsets available worldwide. Though the early SAT phones were primarily designed for telephony, today’s sat phones have the features of smartphones and are broadband capable. Apart from the handset costs, India boasts of the lowest data rate and, hence, it is disputable whether the satellite broadband services can effectively compete with mobile broadband.  

Apart from affordability, the radio spectrum required for satellite broadband is also controversial. Starlink, with its close to 3,000 satellites in the MEO and LEO constellations, have the Federal Communications Commission approval for use of Ku band (12-18 GHz) and Ka band (27-40 GHz); it has also applied for approval for E band (71-86 GHz).

Some of these bands are being used for Direct to Home (DTH) television broadcasting in most countries, including India. Hence, close frequency coordination is required so that the existing services that are using these bands are not affected.  

Radio spectrum

Satellite broadband can not only provide access service directly to the users, but can also be used as backhaul links (that connect different terrestrial points of presence). While in most countries, radio spectrum that is used for access is auctioned, backhaul spectrum is assigned using administrative method. Hence, India needs to decide whether the radio spectrum for satellite broadband, given its evolution, should be treated on a par with spectrum for commercial mobile services and hence auctioned or not.  

Providing Internet connection from space is tricky. Apart from the many successful sat phones projects, Google scrapped its “Loon” project that aimed at providing Internet connectivity via a string of balloons.  

Though SAT phones were very useful during the Kargil war, the commercial and societal benefits of satellite phone and broadband projects are still not apparent.  

The writer is Professor at IIIT Bangalore, currently visiting the University of Southern California