Satellite is a complementary solution, no longer a distinct technology: Mathew Oommen, Reliance Jio

After 4G and now 5G, Reliance Jio is bullish on satellite communication, having successfully demonstrated India’s first giga fiber satellite service at the recently held India Mobile Congress (IMC), 2023. The technology will bring high-speed broadband services to previously inaccessible geographical areas. districts in India. Called JioSpaceFiber, the service will be available across the country at affordable rates, the company claims. The company said the government should start using the Rs 75,700-crore Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to make devices and services affordable and accessible to individuals. In an interview with business line, Matthew Auman, president of Reliance Jio, shared more thoughts on satellite communications. Edited Excerpts:-

How are you preparing for the launch of your satellite services?

Satellite is a great technology…satellite has historically been used as a backhaul technology, but now, in the last two years, the same devices, the same services, using 3GPP (mobile standard), chasing the same customer is what the satellite is doing. It has evolved from a vanilla backhaul technology to an extension in the sky type of capabilities. This is evolution. So when this evolution happens, the coexistence of satellite and other mobile technologies becomes a reality.

So what is your take on spectrum allocation – should it be administratively allocated or auctioned?

We absolutely believe that since everything is the same – services, devices, customers and standards – why should it be different. Anything short of an auction will distort the market significantly. Satellite is an additional solution, no longer a different technology than 5G or 4G. This is free/existing technology. So should there be a different spectrum policy? The answer from my side is, absolutely not. This is because these two technologies do the same thing. What might have happened 10 years ago and what satellite capability is today is 180 degrees different. So we need to develop policies in line with the opportunities for the evolution of technology and services.

Does that mean you are willing to buy the spectrum if the auctions happen now at the earliest?

Once the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Department of Communications (DoT) complete their due processes, I’m sure they will come up with this new course… it’s up to the government to determine. As far as the formal process is concerned, I am sure every satellite provider in India will want to access this spectrum. Every spectrum is based on supply and demand, there is always demand… Things have changed, satellite has evolved, we cannot have a regressive policy applied to a progressive technology. The UAE, Thailand and New Zealand have recently auctioned spectrum for satellite. We as a nation are the nation most in need of spectrum. Why so? In 4G we have 300-400 million subscribers, we had 60-65 MHz spectrum. Take Europe and the US and all the tier 1 operators there, many operators have 100-110 million subscribers… there only 4G spectrum is more than 150-155 MHz. But here I have four times as many subscribers, but almost a third of their spectrum. And in consumption USA has 6-7GB but in India today it is around 25GB. So we are three times their consumption. So subscribers, spectrum and consumption, you think how deprived we are as a nation. In the mid bands they also average 600-700 MHz in 3GHz to 6GHz, we have around 100-130 MHz in the C band. Just because someone does X doesn’t mean it applies to us. We have to do what is right for us…we are no longer a tier 2 nation, we are a tier 1 plus nation. We are in the elite league, we should not worry about adopting the right policies.

It is believed that the tariffs for satellite services will be expensive. How would you make the services available in the current scenario?

For direct mobile services, anyone who cannot afford connectivity or monthly rental needs to get a device and service model using USOF (as per DoT). USOF has around ₹75,700 crore. If we really want to drive the ‘Digital India’ vision, we need to take this and use it. I believe the current license fee for a telecom operator is eight of the adjusted gross revenue (AGR) – five percent for USOF and three percent as actual license fee – and I think that five percent should be zero because you are better off using funds , which are already there, and allowed the telecommunications industry to use this fund to continue investment. Give them as an incentive to the telecom industry instead of keeping it in a pocket that gets no benefit. The reason is that the same government wants the operator to go ahead and launch technologies and services in different markets.

What about the cost of devices (cell phones) that require certain satellite specifications?

The device is a critical equation in the adoption of various services. It came with 4G and we implemented the most affordable 4G reception. Now 5G devices are coming at the Rs 10,000 level and we are seeing more and more adoption of 5G. We’re seeing suddenly in India a lot of demand in the ₹15,000-20,000 category. But it’s important just like the Jio phone that we just launched, it’s very important for us to consider that we don’t forget the 240 million who are still with 2G. It is critical for us as an industry to take them with us on our digital journey because our digital journey is no longer just about connectivity and communication. Our digital journey is to break down the barriers of even AI, because AI has become about how to democratize not only communication and connectivity, but to really democratize AI, I think there’s a big opportunity. This is why I said USOF should be used not only to provide power but also to give subsidies to individuals who cannot afford the transition.

How many satellites will you need to provide the services across India?

For LEO (like OneWeb) 100 satellites are needed. For us it will be eight or nine satellites because we are in a MEO (Mean Earth Orbit) orbit.

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