Telecom Commission Approves Satellite Based Mobile Services In India

PRAVEEN DALAL MANAGING PARTNER OF PERRY4LAW AND CEO OF PTLBThe Telecom Commission is an essential and core segment of Indian Department of Telecommunications (DoT). It has been playing a major role in bringing order to the chaotic telecom situation existing in India. The Commission along with the DoT manages the policy formulation, licensing, wireless spectrum management, administrative monitoring of PSUs, research and development and standardization/validation of equipment etc.

The Telecom Commission was constituted by the Government of India vide Notification dated 11th April, 1989 with administrative and financial powers of the Government of India to deal with various aspects of Telecommunications. The composition of the Commission consists of a Chairman, four full time members, who are ex-officio Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Telecommunications and four part time members who are the Secretaries to the Government of India of the concerned Departments.

One of the areas covered by the Commission pertains to satellite based services management in India. The Satellite phones are permitted in India only with specific permission from DoT. Presently use of specific types of International Mobile Satellite Organisation (INMARSAT) terminals is only permitted as per details available under the link INMARSAT.

In a welcome move, the Telecom Commission has given the approval for introducing satellite based mobile services in India. The approval comes after a recommendation from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to introduce a regulatory mechanism to govern satellite phones. Initially, the services will be offered by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd through a partnership with INMARSAT. INMARSAT provides its satellite services with a constellation of four satellites which are located in the Geo-stationary earth orbit.

Currently, in India, the satellite services of INMARSAT are used by maritime users through the Tata Communications Ltd under its international long-distance licence. Some limited numbers of users of land mobile have also been permitted by the DoT on a case-to-case basis.

Satellites provide telephone and broadcasting services, covering large geographical areas. A satellite-based communication system provides an ideal solution for connecting remote and inaccessible areas. In addition, satellite communication is widely used for the transmission of emergency traffic, such as distress and safety messages, to and from vessels at sea or remote locations.

While the INMARSAT services cater to maritime communication, the Government had envisaged satellite services, namely, Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite (GMPCS) in the new telecom policy 1999. Under this licence, satellite-based communication services were permitted. However, establishment of GMPCS Gateway in India by the licensee was a mandatory license condition, which dampened interest from potential investors. This required substantial financial expenditure which was not feasible to be recovered from the limited number of users.

Now the regulatory environment for telecom sector of India has changed and there is good sense in making such expenditure. The FDI Policy in telecom sector of India 2014 (PDF) is also conducive for investment purposes. Indian government has also given approval to establish two semiconductor wafer fabrication manufacturing facilities in India (PDF). This is in conformity with the policy of India government to encourage electronic system design and manufacturing in India. The new merger and acquisition (M&A) guidelines issued by Indian government is also seen as a pro active step by many telecom stakeholders. These developments would encourage establishment of GMPCS Gateway in India by the concerned licensee and widespread use of Satellite Based Mobile Services in India.

Until now, DoT was giving permission to procure the INMARSAT handsets and taking services from a foreign service provider was given to meet the requirement of paramilitary forces and disaster management. However, there are security related limitations in this arrangement.  There is a possibility of monitoring of calls outside the country as the earth station is located outside the country. In view of the above drawbacks, the Defence forces have not procured these handsets. They are continuing to use the old terminals. However, as declared by the INMARSAT, some of these old terminals will cease to be supported by their satellites from September. Thus, the decision by the Telecom Commission to permit BSNL to offer satellite services could help tide over the problems.