Elon Musk’s SpaceX is getting aggressive with its India launch plan having set up its India subsidiary this month. The company’s unit, Starlink, will soon begin discussions with India telcos Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea to jointly offer satellite communications service in the country’s remote regions where telecom operators don’t have respective telecom network coverage.
Starlink will also engage with state-run BharatNet and Railtel to offer services in the “hardest-to-reach regions”.
In his first ever media briefing, Sanjay Bhargava, the India head of Starlink, informed the Indian media on Wednesday that the company primarily wants to serve the hardest-to-reach regions, adding that there is an “unlimited market” in India to offer broadband access.
He said that the company will work together with traditional telecom operators to tap remote regions: ”… We can change the game from pricing to access.”
In March this year, SpaceX raised the eyebrows of Indian authorities for offering a beta version of its Starlink satellite internet service on pre-orders in the country for a fully refundable deposit of $99. The company’s beta service is already available in urban areas, such as the Delhi-Noida Direct Flyway or Delhi-Jaipur Expressway, according to its website.
The country’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) reportedly started examining if SpaceX’s Starlink service has flouted existing laws by offering a beta service after certain industry bodies, companies and NGOs raised complaints against the company, claiming Starlink was taking pre-bookings without having any regulatory clearances or licenses, which was “illegal” and amounted to cheating consumers.
Bhargava, who previously worked with Elon Musk at PayPal, trashed the allegations, saying that certain sections are creating useless speculation against a large company like SpaceX.
“Someone says that SpaceX is running a Ponzi scheme … but why would SpaceX, which is such a large company, run a scheme for such a small amount? There are all kinds of rubbish … any person who is thinking in the national interest will not try to stop Starlink by creating useless speculation,” Bhargava told Indian media.
SpaceX, which recently registered as a 100% owned subsidiary in India, Starlink Satellite Communications Private Limited (SSCPL), already has over 5,000 pre-orders from India for Starlink services, Bhargava said.
“The Indian entity will start taking advances in the unit and will follow all the rules of the land,” he said, adding that the Indian unit will also start applying for licenses.
The company is initially seeking a trial license to deploy 100 Starlink connections for schools in Delhi and other rural parts of the country. Bhargava said that after the test service, SpaceX will seek a “restricted commercial license” in India.
Bharti Global-backed OneWeb recently received a Letter of Intent (LoI) from the DoT for a GMPCS / VSAT service license in the country.
Bhargava, however, didn’t specify if SpaceX will opt for a GMPCS license or go for the unified license.
SpaceX will not join any industry representative body for any regulatory or policy requirements, Bhargava said, adding that the company will directly make representations to the government and various departments.
Notably, India already has three such bodies that represent different satcom companies. Other than the Broadband India Forum and the Satcom Industry Association (SIA-India),the OneWeb-led Indian Space Association (ISpA) was recently formed as a grouping of space and satellite companies. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched ISpA last month.
Other than SpaceX and OneWeb, Jeff Bezos-led Amazon is also eyeing India’s satellite communications market.
All of this is happening at a time when Indian telecom operators are locking horns with satellite companies over allocation of spectrum in the 28 GHz band for satellite communications service, which telcos want for 5G usage.
SpaceX is also working with India’s official policy think tank, Niti Ayog, for its “aspirational districts program”. Bhargava said that the company is looking to identify 12 districts to create an ecosystem of innovation based on Starlink’s satcom services.