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Satellite Communications Policy in India – Time to revisit and revise

By Nikhil Singal

Recently, the Indian Space Research Organization, popularly known as ISRO, launched a PSLV C-23 rocket carrying a French Earth Observation Satellite along with four other satellites belonging to Germany, Canada and Singapore. After the launch, the Indian Prime Minister congratulated the Department of Space, and mentioned that India’s space programme is the perfect example of “Scale, Speed, and Skill”. He also mentioned that space technology has a critical role to play in realizing the vision of a “Digital India”. Following on these lines, the Finance Minister in his first Annual Budget Speech on July 10, 2014 stated that “there are several major space missions planned for 2014-2015”. While these are all very noble ideas which envision a better and a modern India, there are nevertheless many legal and administrative impediments which deter the actualization of this vision.

SATCOM Policy and Norms

In 1997, the Department of Space, in partnership with the Department of Telecommunication and the Department of Science and Technology, framed the Satellite Communication Policy, 1997 (SATCOM Policy). Considering the expanse and future possibilities of satellite communication for a developing superpower like India, one would have expected this policy to be a voluminous document enlisting guidelines for advancement of satellite, telecommunication, broadcasting, meteorological, exploration and other services in India. Instead, what the government framed was a 2-pager, 5-pointer, abundantly raw and broad policy. Surprisingly, till date, this is the only policy which governs satellite communication in India! The emphasis of the policy was on:
  • Developing satellite communication, launch vehicles and ground equipment industry in India;
  • Making available and developing further the infrastructure built through the government operated Indian National Satellite System (INSAT);
  • Encouraging private sector investment in space industry; and
  • Allowing, to a (very) limited extent, use of foreign satellites for services in India.
Realizing the insufficiency of the policy, the Government in 2000 framed ‘Norms’ for implementation of this policy. These norms elaborated the scope of the policy, while emphasizing on the use and development of the INSAT network and preferential treatment to Indian Satellites. Various sub-committees were created (many of them still dormant) to sanction the use of Indian Satellites by private players based on available “capacity and capability” of transponders and INSAT network. Use of discretion was definitely the undertone implied in such sanction! While these norms dealt with promotion of telecommunication, broadcasting, and meteorological services in India to some extent, the government barely hinted at establishing mechanisms for coordination with other satellite systems around the world and at establishing and promoting private global satellite communication systems (like SES, INMARSAT, INTELSAT, etc.)

These norms classified satellite communication services in two broad categories of domestic and international. However, what actually constituted “domestic” and “international” was left open to interpretation of the service providers, which is surprising especially because the government should have foreseen the use of complex technical apparatus which would be used for communication in the times to come. Further, while preference was given to Indian satellites for such forms of communication, the norms severely limited (rightly or wrongly) the use of “foreign satellites” for domestic communication, and completely lacked norms for the use of such foreign satellites for international communication.

The administrative hotchpotch

What adds to the trouble of having a skeletal policy is the administrative rigmarole which the service providers have to deal with. For the purposes of satellite communications, the Department of Space (DoS) works in collaboration with other Ministries and Departments like the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Department of Science and Technology, to name a few. In addition to this, the DoS has working arms like ISRO and Antrix Corporation, which manage the launching capabilities, transponder capacities, contractual arrangements, etc., of DoS. Apart from this, there is the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing of the DoT which manages wireless communication and frequency spectrum. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) with its various Acts, Rules, Regulations and Directions, also play an important part in the entire administration. In addition to all this, India has also ratified the Outer Space Treaty of the UN as well as the GATS Agreement (containing the Annex on Telecommunications), thereby requiring adherence to specific obligations under it. Further, as a member of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), India, and the service providers operating from India, are required to make various filings in the ITU for allocation of orbital slots and radio spectrums.

If a service provider does not get jumbled with these administrative procedures, there is then the requirement of obtaining various licenses to operate and provide specified services, which is in addition to the process of bidding for spectrum allocation. Therefore, merely getting a license under the Unified Access Services (UAS) license agreement is not enough. The service provider needs, inter alia, to run to different administrative bodies and get relevant frequency allocations, orbital slots, approvals from TRAI, as well as ensure that nothing goes wrong! To add to all this, there are further regulatory hurdles under the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Policy and the SATCOM Norms if the service provider’s Indian entity has foreign equity infusion.

Time to revisit and revise

Having analyzed the legal and administrative policy framework governing satellite communications in India, it is evident that a major overhaul is required to achieve the dream of a “Digital India”. The intention of the government may have been lauded back in 1997 and 2000, though now, it seems rather archaic and restrictive of quintessential aspects of satellite communication. The rate of technological development is dynamic, and considering the fact the only policy which governs satellite communications in India was framed in 1997, it is imperative that the policies also adapt to changing times. Further complications, which are added by the administrative jumble, should also be streamlined and eased. When these policies are being revised, the evolving demands of the Indian and international market should also be kept in mind.

Today there are many more private players in the market who want to avail the benefits of satellite communication for their businesses, and not all of them can afford to go through the administrative hassles or use private global satellite communication systems. Consider private players like DTH service providers or internet service providers or even more complex arrangements used by e-commerce and social networking sites; all these players will benefit from fairer and more transparent procedures and policies. Emphasis should also be given for facilitating easier ingress for international players engaged in international communication, with less restrictive policies on use of foreign satellites. Understandably, there are security concerns which the government needs to factor in such policies as also the fact that development and improvement of domestic satellite systems is of paramount importance. Nevertheless, the government can adopt a balanced approach with adequate checks and balances, and with more transparent and up-to-date policies.

[The author is a Principal Associate, Corporate Practice, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, New Delhi]
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