India Says Starlink Is Unlicensed; Tells Public Not to Preorder Satellite Internet Service

Image: SpaceX

India recently instructed citizens to refrain from signing up for SpaceX’s Starlink service. 

  • The catalyst: On Friday, India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) tweeted that it noticed Starlink presales are open to potential users in Indian territory. 
  • The hang-up: SpaceX needs a DoT license to operate the high-speed, satellite-based broadband internet service in India—and accept Starlink pre-orders.  
  • The backstory: India’s DoT has been scrutinizing Starlink since April, according to the Economic Times, and probing whether the service could violate national telecom law and regulations. 

SpaceX’s POV: SpaceX registered Starlink in India on Nov. 1 and created a fully Indian subsidiary for the service. The $100B space company is currently hiring Starlink leads for the unit—and accepting preorders for a $99 refundable deposit. Over 5,000 Indian customers have signed for the service (and Dishy McFlatface, the accompanying terminal). Starlink plans to sell and ship 200k user terminals in India by the end of next year. 

Competition…? Starlink India would be competing with Reliance Jio, a ubiquitous national telco, along with firms like Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. Bharti is the largest shareholder in OneWeb, following a cash infusion that helped pull the LEO constellation developer (and Starlink competitor) from the brink of bankruptcy. 

  • The Broadband India Forum, a think tank representing Amazon, Facebook, Google, and more, has come out swinging against Starlink. 

On sovereignty: Earlier this year, Elon Musk said Starlink’s intersatellite links would enable connectivity in countries without local downlinks. As for how regulators could stop Starlink transmission within their borders, “they can shake their fists at the sky,” Elon tweeted in September.  

But given the size of the prize in rural India—and Starlink’s formal, growing local presence—SpaceX isn’t taking the full-on cavalier approach to setting up shop within the country. As evidenced by DoT’s latest directive, the ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ model of selling and operating abroad won’t cut it in many foreign jurisdictions. 

While it’s not clear what the next steps are, it’s possible SpaceX may have to pull the plug on user acquisition in India until it jumps through all the required regulatory hoops. 

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