Musk’s SpaceX readying to collaborate with Indian telcos for satcom services

Elon Musk’s SpaceX will soon start talks with Indian telecom service providers like Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea, BharatNet and Raitel for possible collaborations to offer satellite communication, or broadband from space, services in the hardest-to-reach regions.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Sanjay Bhargava, the India head of SpaceX’s Starlink operation, also trashed allegations that Starlink was taking pre-bookings in India without having any regulatory clearances or licenses, which was ‘illegal’ and amounted to cheating consumers.

He said that there must be an Indian constellation of satellites but that will take some time and capital. He added that Bharti Global-UK government backed rival OneWeb was not an Indian constellation.

“…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,” said Bhargava. “Any person who is thinking in national interest will not try to stop Starlink by creating useless speculation”.

Since March 2021, the company has been accepting pre-bookings for high-speed internet service, beamed down from a constellation of multiple low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, for a fully refundable deposit of $99 (around Rs 7,500). Pre-orders from India for Starlink services had already crossed 5,000, Bhargava had said previously.

SpaceX now recently registered a 100% owned subsidiary in India, Starlink Satellite Communications Private Limited (SSCPL), which will allow it to start applying for licenses.

Bhargava said the company’s Indian entity will start taking advances in the unit and will follow all the rules of the land. SpaceX will first seek a trial license to deploy 100 Starlink connections on schools in Delhi and other parts of the country. After this, it will seek a restricted commercial license in India.

“…we only want to serve the hardest to reach regions. If there is broadband by telcos, we can provide service somewhere else. They [service providers] will work together to tap those areas…There is an unlimited market out there…we can change the game – from pricing to access,” he added.

In addition to SpaceX, Bharti Global-backed OneWeb, Amazon and the Tata-Telesat combine are also readying to enter India’s relatively nascent fast broadband-from-space segment, leveraging their respective low–earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations. Experts see India as a key emerging satellite broadband services market with an almost $1 billion annual revenue opportunity in the near-term. This is the case since nearly 75% of rural India does not have access to broadband, as many locations are still without cellular or fibre connectivity. Accordingly, LEO satellite systems are being seen as a viable alternative, though they are costly at present.

Bhargava said the company will make representations to the government and various departments for licenses and other regulatory requirements on its own and will not join any industry representative associations, as there were already too many associations.

Industry body Indian Space Association (ISpA) was recently formed as a grouping of space and satellite companies, and counts OneWeb as a member, among others.

The executive also said that Starlink was subsidising the cost of its service for India already. “It is extremely expensive. If the cost was passed on, it would be unaffordable. Starlink is subsidising the cost a lot already and benefits must outstrip cost.”

Starlink has already received pre-orders for more than 5,000 terminals in India. The executive said that the company will do everything to bring the terminal cost down in the country. “We can see if they can be made locally. Starlink is looking at innovation to bring costs down and the next terminal might be cheaper.”

SpaceX is also working with Niti Ayog for its aspirational districts program and will identify 12 districts to create an ecosystem of innovation based on Starlink services. The company will work with bureaucracy, politicians and the community to develop solutions for these districts.

“These 12 districts will not absorb 1,60,000 Starlinks but will build models where we build the models for catalysing rural development with the help of collectors, who will issue RFPs to companies. I will be talking to CEOs of private companies directly,” he said, adding that the company will provide mentorship to startups and teams looking to do innovation.

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