Taking stock of India’s satellite broadband map as Jio enters the scene

Updated on Feb 14, 2022 03:53 PM IST

Telecom giants and global players are lining up broadband service launches in India through the year. It could be the next battlefront in the country

Consumers can look forward to an abundance of satellite broadband services to choose from by the time 2022 ends. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Consumers can look forward to an abundance of satellite broadband services to choose from by the time 2022 ends. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Satellite broadband services could be the next battlefront in India, as telecom giants and global players are lining up service launches through the year. The latest player to throw the hat in the ring is Reliance Jio, with confirmation that it is partnering with satellite and telecom network provider SES S.A. of Luxembourg.

This means consumers (in some cases, only enterprises) can look forward to an overabundance of satellite broadband services to choose from by the time 2022 ends – Bharti Airtel, OneWeb, Hughes and perhaps SpaceX’s Starlink too, once its regulatory troubles are over. Amazon is also believed to be considering satellite broadband service for India, sometime after the satellites are in space, later in 2022.

Jio’s approach: GEOs and not LEOs

There are different ways in which satellite broadband will be delivered in India, with service providers not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Reliance Jio will deliver their satellite broadband services using SES’s geostationary (GEO) and medium earth orbit (MEO) fleet of satellites. Those would be the SES-12, which is a GEO satellite, as well as the MEO constellation called O3b mPOWER. Reliance Jio plans to offer services to consumers as well as enterprises.

The SES-12 covers India and other regions in south Asia. This satellite was launched in 2018 and is manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space. The KU-beam can be used for direct to home (DTH) TV services, and High Throughput Satellite (HTS) data connectivity services, which satellite broadband will need. The O3b mPOWER constellation will replace the O3b MEO system, for additional coverage in the region. Jio says it will have availability of up to 100 Gbps capacity.

“While we continue to expand our fibre-based connectivity and FTTH business and invest in 5G, this new joint venture with SES will further accelerate the growth of multigigabit broadband,” says Akash Ambani, Director, Reliance Jio, in a statement. This confirms that Jio will continue to develop, and push wired broadband services, under the JioFiber banner. That competes with Airtel’s Xstream broadband service, both services offering similar subscription plans.

Starlink’s stumbles in India: Long-term repercussions?

The satellite broadband push was in a way started by the Elon Musk owned SpaceX’s Starlink early last year when they invited customers to sign up for the $99 (around 7,000 at the time, direct conversion) reservation offer. This didn’t go well with the government, because as it turned out, SpaceX still had not received regulatory approvals for a satellite broadband service in the country when the offer for the $99 deposit was rolled out.

Starlink has not released an official statement on the progression of the potential service rollout in India.

Starlink still has not received approvals for the service in India, though Brazil becomes the latest country to allow services. In India, only once the approvals are received can they start trials for the broadband service. As of now, all deposits received, estimated to be around 5,000 from interested customers, have been refunded. Late last year, Starlink’s India head Sanjay Bhargava, also stepped down.

In January, Starlink confirmed that they have more than 2000 LEO, or Low Earth Orbit satellites in orbit, after 49 new satellites were added to the constellation. They have an authorisation for 4,408 satellite strong constellation to deliver the satellite broadband connectivity as well. Starlink now has more than 1,45,000 reported customers in the 12 countries the service is available in.

Satellite broadband market: Massive potential in India

It was in November last year when the government simplified the clearance process for satellite broadband network rollouts in India, with a single platform clearance, including from Department of Space and Department of Telecom.

A 2021 report by research firm Deloitte and industry body, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates that India’s satellite communication user base will be between 1.5 million to 2 million by the year 2025. This will be heavily reliant on LEO, satellites.

Late last month, the Bharti Airtel and UK government owned OneWeb and Hughes Communications announced LEO satellite based broadband services for India. OneWeb already has 394 satellites in orbit around earth – that’s 60% of the planned 648 satellites. The two companies will offer satellite broadband services to enterprises and the government for delivering connectivity and services across the country.

“OneWeb’s constellation will cover the length and breadth of India,” Neil Masterson, CEO, OneWeb, said at the time. Hughes will work with enterprises and government customers, while OneWeb will focus on connectivity in towns and villages across India.

Earlier, Airtel and Hughes also announced their satellite broadband plans for India, which will also be an option for enterprises as well as the government, for connectivity requirements. The focus will be on banking, aeronautical and maritime mobility, small to medium-sized businesses, education, and telecom backhaul.

Good timing for Reliance Jio, but will this hurt Starlink?

Even as Starlink waits for clearances following its run-in with the regulatory requirements last year, Reliance Jio’s arrival into the satellite broadband space for consumers as well, will likely be a serious blow. Jio, which is the largest telecom service provider in India ahead of Airtel and Vi, has the existing retail infrastructure and the economies of scale in place.

It may provide that critical buffer with pricing, which could give Starlink and other consumer facing satellite broadband services, something to worry about. If you remember, these fine margins allowed Jio to effectively compete in the telecom space, a price advantage that attracted customers.

At this time, no pricing details have been confirmed, but Starlink had revealed its cards with the $99 offer – a monthly subscription price, in line with global pricing, which may not sit easily with a lot of consumers in India. Jio will likely look to undercut that significantly – they also don’t have the costs of developing, launching, and maintaining a satellite constellation.

Globally, Starlink is gearing up to launch a Premium service in Q2, which will use a bigger antenna for more bandwidth – the promise is for speeds between 150Mbps and 500Mbps with latency of between 20-40 ms, or milliseconds. It’ll be much costlier too, at $500 per month. The standard Starlink service is priced at $99 per month, with speeds up to 200Mbps.

It may not be possible for satellite broadband to offer specific speed tiers the way wired broadband plans are structured, but Jio says they will have availability of up to 100 Gbps capacity on the satellites it’ll be using.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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