SpaceX plans India expansion for Starlink, faces roadblocks

Starlink Uses Satellites To Provide Low Latency High Speed ​​Internet With Fiber Optic Cables

SpaceX hired Sanjay Bhargava as national director of Starlink

Bhargava says SpaceX intends to initially target ten Lok Sabha constituencies

Starlink, the legendary satellite internet service that is part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is set to debut in India after Sanjay Bhargava has been appointed as national director of Starlink.

In a publication on LinkedIn, Bhargava announced that SpaceX will initially focus on ten rural constituencies of Lok Sabha.

The development comes nearly six months after SpaceX encountered regulatory hurdles while trying to deploy beta testing of the Starlink service in India. The Broadband India Forum (BIF) opposed this deployment.

The forum argued that SpaceX does not have a license or authorization of any kind to provide internet services in India. The BIF is an independent political forum and think tank that represents companies like Amazon, Hughes, Google and others. Some of them are deploying their own competing services

Satellites in low Earth orbit: a high-stakes company

SpaceX made headlines in 2019 when it launched a low-earth ‘constellation’ In-Orbit (LEO) satellites designed to provide high-speed Internet access to remote areas of the world.

Since then, the company has been busy launching these satellites in batches of 60 to meet its goal of creating a “mega-constellation” of 30,000 satellites that will bring the Internet to all regions of the world.

Currently, Starlink services over 14 countries including UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and others. In a tweet in August, Elon Musk mentioned that license applications are pending in many countries.

SpaceX is not alone. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson join the competition with Project Kuiper and Virgin Orbit, respectively. To avoid being left behind by obnoxiously wealthy billionaires, Chinese public telecommunications companies are planning to launch a constellation of more than 10,000 satellites called StarNet.

Indian multinational Bharti Enterprises co-owns OneWeb, another satellite Internet company, with the UK government and SoftBank. OneWeb is also part of the BIF.

Unlike traditional satellites that orbit approximately 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, low Earth orbit satellites orbit between 500 and 2,000 kilometers. Because of this proximity to the Earth’s surface, LEO satellites can transmit data at much faster rates, facilitating fast internet speeds.

This means that even people living in remote areas can access high-speed internet without investing in expensive fiber-optic infrastructure in the region.

The great Indian digital divide

The pandemic has exposed glaring inequalities in internet access as schools across the country transition to distance learning. Even the small percentage of college students who were lucky enough to have an Internet-enabled device at home found themselves struggling with snail-like 2G Internet speeds.

This lack of the Internet does not only affect students; it keeps an entire part of our population disconnected from the rest of India and its growth.

When Mukesh Ambani launched Jio 4G and revolutionized the mobile internet market, the pricing proposed by the new telecommunications company of the day sent competitors in a race to the bottom for mobile Internet pricing.

For a moment, India even had the cheapest internet in the world. But even this “democratization” of the Internet was not enough to bridge the cavernous digital divide in the country.

The connectivity gap is particularly striking when comparing rural and urban figures. There are around 323 million urban Internet users compared to only 299 million rural users. India’s urban population is 485 million, while its rural population is over 948 million.

There is no incentive for private companies to build the large cable networks needed for high-speed internet in sparsely populated areas. Even the establishment of mobile towers is not viable in regions where subscribers would be few in between.

In theory, this is where Starlink comes in. To access the Internet through the service, all you need is a terminal (receiver), an Internet-enabled device and a power connection. But for those parts of India that are in desperate need of better connectivity, a service like Starlink would put the cart before the horse.

Over 200 million food insecure people and more than 280 million illiterates would gladly trade a few thousand satellites for an education and a meager salary. With an initial investment cost of $ 499 (INR 36,000 +) and a monthly subscription cost of $ 99, Starlink is unlikely to benefit anyone who is not well off.

Unless a massive government grant is involved, SpaceX’s ambitions in India appear to target wealthy people who live or travel in rural areas with limited internet infrastructure.

But an ill-informed goal isn’t SpaceX’s only challenge with Starlink in India. The powerful Broadband India Forum has members who already have competing products in the market or will be releasing them soon. They are likely to pressure SpaceX’s efforts in the future.

New technology also presents overriding “national security” concerns. For a country that reports a high number of Internet outages and communication channels in times of civil war, high-speed satellite Internet would be an uncomfortable loophole.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the same reason why China decided to deploy a constellation of state-owned satellites to compete with SpaceX: so that the state bureaucracy can continue to control all communication channels.

If Starlink is to be successful in India, it will have to overcome many regulatory hurdles and become a government compliant service just like any other Internet service provider.

About Travis Durham

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