Starlink on cusp of India launch, DoT to meet on Sept 20

5G, state of indian economy
The rollout of 5G technology has helped Indian economy weather global headwinds, heralding a new era of growth, says RBI's State of the Economy report.

In a potentially groundbreaking move, the Department of Telecommunications may allow tech titan Elon Musk’s Starlink initiative to offer internet services in the country. The DoT has convened a meeting on September 20 to deliberate on granting a global mobile personal communication by satellite (GMPCS) services license to SpaceX. Other contenders for the licence include OneWeb, backed by the Bharti Group, and Jio Space, the satellite arm of Reliance Jio.

Starlink seeks to offer broadband services that are faster, more affordable, and more reliable than existing options, particularly in rural and remote areas with limited or no connectivity. In the first quarter of 2023, Starlink’s average download speed in the US was only 67Mbps. However, the company had claimed that its service would reach 300Mbps by the end of 2021.

READ | US economy: Sticky inflation, strong dollar to test Fed’s balancing act

Musk’s ambitious internet project now has more than 4,200 satellites in orbit, which means Starlink operates over half of the total number of active satellites. While the project is currently in beta testing, SpaceX plans to launch thousands of satellites in the coming years to provide global internet access.

Starlink had submitted the licence application to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) last year. It has been active in India since 2021 when it opened pre-booking channels. DoT officials have hinted that the application is likely to be approved, given that other players have also received the licence.

The next step for Starlink’s operations in the country is obtaining the necessary approvals from the Department of Space, including acquiring the spectrum required to offer its services. Satellite spectrum is a limited resource, and its allocation is crucial for satellite broadcasting, communication satellite, and weather satellite services. Companies cannot implement these services without access to the spectrum.

As the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s final recommendations on whether to auction or allocate satellite spectrum are awaited, different players in the segment hold varying views. Jio advocates an auction, seeking a level playing field and anticipating the possibility of satellite communication companies offering voice and data services. In contrast, Starlink and OneWeb prefer spectrum allocation, aligning with the global trend. Starlink is concerned that an auction might impose geographical restrictions that increase costs.

While industry players champion satellite internet as the future, the scientific community is concerned about issues such as its growing impact on night sky visibility. To enhance speed, companies will need to launch more satellites into the sky, which environmentalists and astronomers fear will disrupt the natural beauty and balance of the night sky. This could affect not only astronomical observations but also wildlife behaviour.

Nonetheless, satellite internet can be a boon in remote areas as it does not require the time-consuming infrastructure needed for fibre optic networks. Instead, satellite internet can transmit signals from the sky to almost anywhere on Earth. This has the potential to be a game-changer for rural India, which lags behind in digital connectivity despite the government’s efforts to promote Digital India. Besides Starlink, two other major players in this segment are telecom giants Airtel and Jio. Media reports also suggest that Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper is likely to enter the Indian market soon.

Starlink’s global operations are still in their early stages, but the company has already made significant progress in several key markets. It has over 400,000 active users in North America. The company has also launched service in several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Starlink is also available in parts of South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Starlink’s business model is based on selling subscriptions to its internet service. The company offers two subscription plans: one for consumers and one for businesses. The consumer plan costs $99 per month, and the business plan costs $500 per month. Starlink also offers a premium subscription plan for businesses that need more bandwidth. Its global operations are managed by a team of experts in a variety of fields, including engineering, operations, and marketing. The company has offices in several countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Starlink has the potential to revolutionise the way people access the internet. Starlink’s low-latency internet service could provide a viable alternative to traditional terrestrial internet providers in remote and underserved areas. However, the company faces several challenges in its global expansion plan. These include obtaining regulatory approvals from countries in which it wants to operate, setting up ground station infrastructure, and pricing of its service competitively in different markets.