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SpaceX appoints Sanjay Bhargava to head satellite broadband division Starlink in India

Starlink has been flirting with the idea of delivering satellite-based broadband in rural parts of India since last year.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has appointed Sanjay Bhargava as the head of Starlink, the low-earth orbit satellite internet provider, for India. Starlink has previously signalled interest in the Indian market, but this is SpaceX’s most direct signal yet that it is putting in the legwork to enter the country. Analytics India Magazine first reported the hire, which Bhargava announced on LinkedIn. “Super excited to join SpaceX effective Oct 1, 2021 as Starlink Country Director India,” Bhargava said in his post. “[I] had worked with @elonmusk on the PayPal founding team. Have been in India since 2004 and Starlink and I share a common passion for supporting a transformed India starting with Rural India,” he added.

“Our plans are still evolving and I will keep you posted from time to time. Till we have government approval for at least a pilot we will not be adding any people In India,” Bhargava said in a follow-up post. The government says it is keen on having satellite internet rolled out for rural areas. While Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep have been getting internet access through satellite connectivity, LEO constellations like Starlink and Bharti Ltd’s OneWeb have far better coverage and bandwidth, due to the sheer number of satellites in the sky and improvements in bandwidth utilisation in recent years. This may greatly reduce the costs of delivering broadband in rural areas without a terrestrial internet link.

SpaceX and India

SpaceX’s first public engagement with the Indian market was in November last year when they filed a response to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s consultation paper on promoting broadband connectivity in India. The company argued that India needed technology-neutral definitions for broadband, and said that policies deterring satellite broadband needed to be changed.

A couple months later, the company started taking pre-orders for Starlink globally, accepting a refundable US$99 deposit, even in India. This led to a rebuke from the Department of Telecommunications, which told the company to stop accepting money from potential customers without first obtaining a license. Starlink no longer offers preorders from India.

Will satellite broadband come to India?

Outside of Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar, where the lack of any terrestrial connectivity has forced the government to rely on satellite broadband for a long time, subcontinental states have mostly relied on mobile data. “DoT will shortly send a reference to TRAI, seeking suggestions on ways to create an enabling regulatory environment for deploying new satellite technologies like LEO constellations, and also explore a geography-specific licencing framework,” a government official said in a webinar in August.

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The space communications policy of the government released in 2020 commits the government to facilitating satellite broadband in rural areas, where commercial deployments are not financially feasible.

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