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Can Elon Musk’s Starlink undermine the Indian government’s grip over internet access?

Internet from a constellation of satellites like Starlink gives rise to speculation around their ability to cut through local regulations.

Starlink, a satellite-internet service under Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been flagged by the Department of Telecommunications for selling internet services in India without having the relevant license. “Given the fact that Starlink is not a licensee, the public is advised not to subscribe to Starlink services being advertised,” the DoT said in a press release on November 26.

The DoT has written to Starlink asking the company to refrain from offering internet services in India immediately. The company recently registered its business in India.

The Indian government seems to be worried that Starlink represents a threat to their control over internet access in the country. India is, after all, one of the world leaders in the frequency of internet shutdowns. Satellite-based internet services like Starlink have the potential to take matters off the government’s hands.

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DoT asked Starlink to refrain from offering internet services in India

Starlink is currently accepting orders for internet services in India through its website, a fact noted in the DoT’s press release which says:

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“For rendering satellite based services in India, requisite license(s) from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India are required.  It is hereby informed to the public at large that the said company has not obtained any license/authorization for rendering satellite based internet services that are being booked on their website. – Press Release by Department of Telecommunication

On entering any India-based address, the website allows you to deposit $99 and says:

“Starlink is targeting coverage in your area in 2022. Availability is subject to regulatory approval. Within each coverage area, orders are fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis.” — Starlink website (emphasis ours)

MediaNama has reached out to SpaceX regarding Starlink’s plans in India and will update the report once a response is received.

What is unique about Starlink?

Starlink is a satellite-based internet service by SpaceX. The idea behind Starlink is to make use of a constellation of thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit to provide internet services “across the globe,” according to the website.

  • Where it’s available: Starlink is currently available in 21 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and parts of Europe. Musk has not been shy about Starlink’s global ambitions:

  • Competitors: There are quite a few satellite constellations that have sprung up in the past few years to compete with Starlink. Significant competitors include Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Bharti Airtel-backed OneWeb constellations. Notably, OneWeb has partnered with ISRO for satellite launches starting in 2022.

Can satellite-based internet be free from government control?

There has been plenty of speculation around satellite-based internet providers and their ability to cut through local regulations. In certain instances, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also touted Starlink’s ability to bypass government control:

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However, there are plenty of ways in which governments could exert control over the internet, even if it comes from a constellation of satellites. In a recent article for VICE, researcher Michael Caster listed a few such methods:

  • Corporate backlash: “If Elon Musk was persuaded to force Starlink internet into China’s backyard, Beijing would likely retaliate with production or import bans on Tesla,” Caster wrote, offering an example of corporate backlash.
  • Physical antennas: Satellite-based internet services will require physical terminals. Such terminals can be easily destroyed by willing governments.
  • Signal jamming: Another method cited by Caster is signal jamming, which involves the use of jammers to disrupt information flow in wireless data networks.

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