Changing landscape of satellite communication laws in India

Monday 19 December 2022

Jishnu Sanyal

Trilegal, Bangalore

Krati Hashwani

Trilegal, Bangalore

The Indian satellite communications sector is at a turning point in the wake of various developments set to eliminate the regulatory hurdles faced by the industry so far. In this article, we briefly discuss the various issues that have historically plagued the sector and the proposed measures adopted by the Indian government to address them.

In the last two decades, especially since the advent of the internet and internet-based services, satellite communications have evolved to become a key facilitator for various cutting-edge technologies such as machine-to-machine communications, internet of things, telemedicine, over-the-top streaming, inter alia. It has also become crucial in providing last-mile connectivity to rural and remote areas, where terrestrial connectivity has historically been challenging.

In India, the satellite sector has been largely government-controlled with limited scope for private participation. Under the existing regime, satellite capacity utilisation is governed by the satellite communications policy (‘Satcom Policy’) of 1997, administered by the Department of Space (DoS) through the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).[1] The Satcom Policy was primarily issued to allow Indian and foreign entities to lease the satellite capacity of INSAT[2] and lay down the process for establishing and operating an Indian satellite system. While it permits limited use of foreign satellites to provide services in India, the use of domestic satellite capacity is given preferential treatment.

The existing regime with INSAT satellites has helped sectors such as: telecommunications, broadcasting, news gathering, weather forecasting, mapping, disaster warning, search and rescue operations. However, it has fallen short in achieving the objectives under recent policy initiatives to meet the needs of the satellite communications sector.

For instance, even for establishing and operating satellites, the Satcom Policy only provides for landing rights and permissions for Indian satellites, not foreign satellites. The Satcom Policy was also primarily intended to cover geostationary or geosynchronous (GSO) satellites, and not non-geostationary satellites (NGSOs), which include medium earth orbit (MEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The lack of these permissions under the existing Satcom Policy has prevented satellite operators to provide capacity from NGSO satellites for use in India, and also prevented the use of products that use such new-age technologies (such as satellite broadband) for businesses and Indian citizens. Foreign satellite operators who want to make their capacity available to businesses in India also have to go through a government intermediary, Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO. The administrative overlap caused by a multiplicity of regulatory bodies, such as DoS, ISRO, Antrix and additional regulators for the telecom sector, has restricted global companies from operating in this sector in India.

In addition to this, entities seeking to provide services in India using the satellite capacity obtained through the above process are also required to apply separately for service licences, such as those for providing a telecommunications service or a broadcasting service. These are subject to separate processes and permissions and are governed by different regulators.

Owing to the above, private participation, including foreign investments (subject to prior government approval) and the use of foreign-owned or NGSO satellites has been extremely limited in the Indian satellite communications sector until now.

Recent Reforms

This potential of satellite communication has been recognised by the Indian government in various policy documents, such as the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. The Indian Government has taken cognisance of these issues and introduced certain reforms for this sector, which are briefly discussed below:

  1. Draft Spacecom Policy 2020

In October 2020, the DoS released the draft Space-Based Communication Policy of India - 2020 for public consultation (New Spacecom Policy).[3] The New Spacecom Policy attempts to bring private participation and investments in the sector, strengthen India’s satcom capabilities and align it with unprecedented growth in technology.

The New Spacecom Policy provides a much-needed nudge to the satcom sector by allowing new-age satellite technologies. It provides for Indian entities to apply for permissions for:

  1. the operation of satellites in NGSOs, which will allow communications and services provided using LEO and MEO satellites;
  2. the use of non-Indian orbital resources, such as foreign satellites and orbital resources; and
  3. the establishment of ground control segments. Under the New Spacecom Policy, an independent entity (ie, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (‘IN-SPACe’)) is proposed to promote, monitor and supervise space activities and accord the necessary permissions to the players in the market as a single-window nodal agency.

If the New Spacecom Policy is implemented, Indian entities will be able to obtain permissions for space-based communications, allowing them to establish and operate satellite systems using foreign satellites; set-up tracking, telemetry and command systems and satellite control centres in or outside India; and operate a communication service from space, amongst others. Indian entities will also be able to design, develop and realise satellites and associated communication systems through self-built satellites or procured satellites.

Reportedly, the New Spacecom Policy has undergone further changes based on industry submissions and a revised draft is expected to be released soon. Once the Union Cabinet approves the revised version, it will significantly change the existing framework, altering the policy landscape of satellite communications in India.

  1. Guidelines for establishing satellite based-communication network(s) 2022

In October 2022, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) released the Guidelines for establishing satellite-based communication networks.[4] The objective of the policy reform is to streamline the licensing and clearance procedures to improve the accessibility of satellite communication services across the country. Through these Guidelines, DoT has mostly consolidated the previously existing framework for satellite-based communication networks and provided clarifications where required. Key aspects of the Guidelines include:

  1. Steps for providing any satellite-based communication service to the public or setting up a satellite-based network: This requires separate authorisation/permissions from the following bodies:
    1. service licence or appropriate authorisation from the DoT;
    2. space segment assignment to render the services through DoS/New Space India Limited (NSIL) or space segment provider duly authorised by DoS/IN-SPACe;
    3. frequency assignment (Decision Letter (DL); clearance from Standing Advisory Committee on Frequency Allocation (SACFA); and Wireless Operating License (WOL))[5] from Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) Wing of DoT;
    4. carrier plan approval and up-linking permission from Network Operations & Control Centre (NOCC) (if applicable); and
    5. security clearance (if applicable).

While this was also the process under the existing laws, the Guidelines consolidate the process and the steps to be followed, which provides clarity to businesses looking to provide related services in this sector.

  1. Licenses under which satellite communication can be provided: Satellite-based communication services can be provided within the respective scope of the following licences/authorisations issued under Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, such as the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite (GMPCS) Service authorisation under a Unified Licence (whose scope covers all types of mobile services (voice and non-voice messages), data services by establishing GMPCS gateway in India); Commercial Very Small Aperture Terminal Closed User Group (‘Commercial VSAT CUG’) Service authorisation (whose scope includes providing backhaul connectivity to telecom service providers for mobile services and establishing Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as providing data connectivity between various sites in India using VSATS, where users belong to a closed user group (CUG). It can also be used to aggregate traffic from Machine-to-Machine (M2M)/Internet of Things (IoT) devices/aggregator devices). Even service licensees having In-Flight and Maritime Connectivity (IFMC) authorisations can provide wireless voice or data connectivity on ships or aircraft within Indian territorial waters using satellites.

This is also aligned with the existing laws and consolidates the various licenses that permit usage of satellite-based connectivity within their scope for provision of various services. It is also pertinent to mention that many of these service authorisations such as GMPCS or Commercial VSAT CUG have been amended by the Government over the past year, as a part of these measures.

  1. Allotment of space segment: An entity with the appropriate licence (mentioned above) will be required to obtain space segment (satellite capacity) from DoS/NSIL or space segment provider duly authorised by DoS/IN-SPACe. However, it must be ensured that the land earth station (gateway), corresponding to the chosen foreign satellite/satellite system, is established in India for each satellite system. Therefore, it has now been clarified that foreign satellite system can be used to provide satellite communication services. However, a gateway will have to be established in India. Currently there is no clarity on what authorisation needs to be procured by the satellite provider for operating the gateway hub in India. We expect this to be clarified in the New Spacecom Policy once it is released.
  2. Inclusion of NGSO satellites: The Guidelines allow for all types of satellite, viz, GSO and NGSO satellites (which includes LEO satellites) to be permitted to be used for providing satellite-based low bit-rate connectivity. This was also analysed and recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)[6] in its recommendation paper on the subject.
  3. Process for applying for in-principle clearance: The Guidelines also provide for the establishment of an Inter-Ministerial Committee for Satellite Network Clearance (IMC-SNC), formerly known as the Apex Committee, established to provide a centralised setting for the issuance of ‘in principle clearance’ for proposed satcom networks. After obtaining the licence/authorisation (Commercial VSAT/GMPC, etc), an applicant will be required to apply for in-principle clearance to the Satellite Licensing Division of DoT on the online SaralSanchar portal. The proposal will be examined by Satellite Licensing Division and presented to IMC-SNC, if required. If the application is in order, the Satellite Licensing division of the DoT will grant the applicant in-principle clearance for establishing the satellite-based network on the advice of IMC-SNC. This has been put in place to speed up the further issue of clearances by individual units after the applicant has obtained the licence/authorisation.
  4. Reforms to ease procedures and streamline clearances:
    1. the pre-existing Mandatory Performance Verification Testing (MPVT) procedure to be carried out by NOCC has been ended. The details of the relevant antenna parameters are now only required to be furnished online by the applicant on the basis of self-declaration;
    2. there will no longer be any MPVT charges (testing charge) payable to NOCC;
    3. additionally, the Guidelines clarify that NOCC charges of INR 21k (approximately USD 254) per transponder (36 MHz) per annum for use of space segment have been removed; and
    4. the Guidelines prescribe fixed time frames for the various assignments/clearances by DoS/NSIL, NOCC, WPC and SACFA, which is a welcome move in the sector, given that the approval process in this sector is often time consuming.

Way forward

While the current reforms and proposed reforms are a commendable effort to unlock the potential of satellite communications in India, various aspects, such as the exact authorisations required and the related compliances, are yet to be clarified and will be subject to the New Spacecom Policy. The implementation of the recently notified National Frequency Allocation Plan 2022 that recommends the frequency range 27.5 – 28.5 GHz to be allowed for shared use by International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) and satellite services subject to feasibility, is also currently pending.


[2] The Indian National Satellite System or INSAT is a series of satellites launched, owned and controlled by the ISRO.

[6] The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was established in 1997, as an independent regulatory body for the telecom sector in India and has certain recommendatory, regulatory and tariff setting functions.