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If DoT has its way, satellite spectrum auction is imminent despite I&B Ministry’s objections: Experts

Industry veterans are of the opinion that the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) and TRAI may not be the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to the satellite spectrum auction in India

If the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has its way on the satellite spectrum auction in India, the only option left for broadcasters would be to challenge it in court, which would turn the matter into litigation, a highly placed source told

This comes at a time when there is a concern prevailing in the industry about the potential for a large-scale disruption caused by the auctioning of satellite spectrum. 

However, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently released a detailed and informative "Consultation Paper" on the topic.

Parallelly, on the issue of satellite spectrum allocation, the government has also formed an inter-ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Wireless Advisor. Department of Space (DoS), DoT and Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry will speak to their stakeholders and share the feedback with the Wireless Advisor.

The Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), in its response to the ministry, opposed any such move.

Industry veterans are of the opinion that the I&B Ministry and TRAI may not be the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to the satellite spectrum auction in India. 

"The actual decision-makers are working behind the scenes to get things done. Even if the MIB says that an auction should not take place or TRAI recommends against holding an auction, DoT would have the final say. There is a third person sitting somewhere who is taking a call on this and they have worked out the methodology," a highly place source said.

"If the DoT decides to go ahead with the spectrum auction, the only option left for broadcasters would be to challenge it in court, which would turn the matter into litigation, and TRAI is aware of this possibility," he added.

I&B Secretary Apurva Chandra has been batting for “Ease of Doing Business” in the broadcast sector. So much so that a separate clause was added in the new uplinking and downlinking guidelines inviting foreign broadcasters to uplink their channels from India. 

On the contrary, the same government is talking about an auction of spectrum in C-band, used by broadcasters, in the draft Telecom Bill.

“Imagine if foreign broadcasters come here to uplink their channels and then they find themselves stuck in the middle of an auction process. Currently, from the territory they are uplinking the channels, there's no auction at the place,” said a senior broadcast executive who did not want to be named.

The secretary and even Union Minister Anurag Thakur have reiterated on several occasions that India can be the content hub of the world. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has liberalised the space policy stating that private satellite operators can launch their satellites.

“It seems the various departments are working in silos and different people say different things at various points in time. So, who is telling the truth?” asked an industry expert.

“On one hand, there is a major push for "Ease of Doing Business", but at the same time, there are talks of satellite spectrum auctions. How can both go hand in hand?” questioned another broadcast executive, who also did not want to be named.

“If an Indian broadcaster wants to uplink a channel from Singapore using a foreign satellite, it is a simple online process. That may not be possible if a satellite spectrum is going to be auctioned in India,” the executive added.

It is important to note that even the Indian broadcasters find it convenient to use foreign satellites for several reasons including the availability of long-term contracts to the life of satellites. 

“ISRO repeatedly questions the use of foreign satellites by Indian broadcasters. However, they failed to meet the demands of the Indian broadcasting industry. For example, whilst the uplinking license is valid for a period of 10 years, the use of foreign satellites is permitted only for a period of 2 years!! As a result, the broadcasters who uplink their channels from India have to seek an extension for the use of foreign satellites every 2 years and MIB refers these applications to ISRO for confirmation. However, channels that uplink their channels from abroad do not have to go through this bureaucratic process of MIB and ISRO,” a distribution veteran told BestMediaInfo.

“This requirement by ISRO is unreasonable particularly because, so far, they failed to provide adequate transponder capacities with technical specifications of the Indian broadcasters whereas foreign satellite operators are in a position to meet the long-term requirements of the Indian broadcasting industry,” the distribution veteran added.

Currently, ISRO lacks the capacity to provide satellites for Indian broadcasters, resulting in companies such as Star, Zee, Sony, India Today, and ABP opting for foreign satellites. 

“It should be noted that even though foreign satellites are being utilised, the uplinking will still be carried out within India, thereby allowing the government to exercise control over taxation and content. This is a positive development for the government, but it remains to be seen how conducive this arrangement is for the Ease of Doing Business," said a broadcaster quoted above.

According to industry experts, if the government proceeds with its plan to auction the C-band spectrum currently used for broadcasting, it could have a detrimental effect not only on the broadcasting but on the whole media and entertainment ecosystem. 

The consultation paper released by TRAI includes information on international practices and presents 54 questions for stakeholders to provide input on, primarily regarding the assignment of spectrum and charging, without any predetermined bias.

TRAI noted that some countries such as the US, Mexico and Brazil tried to sell frequencies through auction but were unsuccessful and ultimately had to resort to administrative licensing.

According to experts, the starting point of a reference from the DoT on September 13, 2021, is questionable because it is based on a flawed assumption that subscribers in satellite communication are accessed through an "Access Spectrum" similar to the terrestrial network. 

This assumption is incorrect and indicative of a pre-conceived orientation. Satellite spectrum differs from mobile spectrum in many important ways, such as being a shared resource, dependent on ITU frequency coordination, and subject to different spectrum management rules. 

Additionally, the revenue potentials of the two sectors are significantly different.

Notably, in its advisory jurisdiction in the Presidential Reference relating to the order in the 2G case, the Supreme Court held that "Auction, as a method of disposal of natural resources, cannot be declared to be a Constitutional mandate under Article 14 of the Constitution of India." 

The court also stated that, "The auction may be the best way of maximising revenue, but revenue maximisation may not always be the best way to serve public good.”

TRAI has stated that the new-age satellite systems can be used to provide ubiquitous coverage and for providing broadband connectivity, global positioning system (GPS) and navigation, Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine communication, remote sensing and imaging, broadcasting, disaster management, telemedicine, etc.

As quoted by TRAI from the Asian Development Bank paper, "Satellite connectivity is only cost-competitive for remote and dispersed populations where fibre deployments are challenging."

The satellite spectrum is a resource that is shared by different satellite operators without any breakup or fragmentation. Each operator uses the full band with maximum spectrum efficiency. However, if an auction is to be held for satellite spectrum, the concerned band would have to be divided to allocate separate portions to different winners.

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