Satellite spectrum struggles: Elon Musk’s Starlink urges India to ditch airwave auction


Elon Musk insists that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite services could be a connectivity game changer for India’s rural regions, but the company’s path to commercial services remains clouded by doubt over the government’s spectrum policy

Earlier this week, billionaire Elon Musk met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s diplomatic visit to the USA. According to reports, the discussion largely centred around Musk’s potential business ventures within India, with Musk outlining plans to potentially build a Tesla manufacturing base in India.

According to Musk, this could be just one of a number of “significant investments in India”, including launching SpaceX’s commercial LEO satellite service, Starlink, in the country.

But bringing Starlink to India is set to be a contentious process, not least because of SpaceX’s current clash over spectrum policy with India’s existing mobile operators.

The Indian government is currently planning to launch an auction for satellite-suitable spectrum in the near future, handling the spectrum in the same manner they would for 4G and 5G suitable bandwidths.

SpaceX, however, is currently lobbying the government to reconsider this strategy, arguing that the spectrum should simply be allocated to suitable companies in an equitable manner. The company said the auction process would drive up costs and impose geographical restrictions, therefore limiting the service’s reach and economic viability.

Reliance Jio disagrees, saying that foreign satellite companies like SpaceX could offer voice and data services to consumers and therefore directly compete with the rest of the telecoms sector. Thus, an auction is necessary to ensure a level playing field for the market.

Musk had previously tried to launch Starlink in India in 2021, with the company beginning to take preorders for the services prior to receiving regulatory approval to offer services. The Indian government ultimately cracked down on this practise, ordering SpaceX to return pre-order deposits and await full regulatory approval.

Starlink is still awaiting clearance from Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) and Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

The communications satellite space race in India is beginning to heat up in recent years, with Jio Platforms forming its own low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite business, Jio Satellite Communications, late last year. Earlier that same year, the company had partnered with satellite specialist SES for a joint venture called Jio Space Technology Limited, aiming to provide broadband services using a combination of geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites and middle Earth orbit (MEO) satellites.

India’s second largest mobile player, Bharti Airtel, meanwhile, already owns a significant stake in the UK government-backed LEO satellite operator, OneWeb.

Rumours also suggest that Nelco, a local satellite company owned by Tata, and Canada’s Telesat are interested in launching satellite services in India and will seek spectrum licences.

Finally, Amazon’s long-awaited LEO sat project, Project Kuiper, is also expecting to launch its first satellites next year, indicating that India will be a key market for the service’s growth.

How is the emergence of LEO satellite constellations changing the telecoms ecosystem? Join the operators in discussion at this year’s Total Telecom Congress live in Amsterdam

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