Back in February 2018, SpaceX launched its first two Starlink test crafts, named TinTinA and TinTinB. SpaceX’s satellite broadband arm, Starlink, can soon launch a satellite-based internet service in India, hopefully starting from December 2022, if everything goes well. Recently, Sanjay Bhargava, evangelist and business coach, was appointed as the Starlink Country Director in India. He mentioned in a LinkedIn post that the company’s target is to have 2 lakh terminals active in India in December 2022. However, the actual numbers may vary; it may be much lower than what is intended or even “zero” if it does not get government approval.
The private spaceflight company aims to provide low-cost internet services to remote locations; we can consider rural areas with respect to India. Moreover, the company hopes to place around 42,000 satellites — nearly ten times the number of satellites functioning currently — for its so-called mega constellation project. Additionally, since the start of the space age in 1957, a little more than 12,000 satellites have been placed into the earth orbit to date. Simply put, the task looks gargantuan at first hand, and speedy delivery of the satellites need to be looked upon.
With over 1.2 billion population, India has 560 million internet users and is the world’s second-largest online market, after only China. By 2023, it is expected that the country will have over 650 million internet users. Despite the enormous number of internet users, the country’s internet penetration rate was estimated to be around 50% in 2020. Considering this huge market base and enormous possibility for the future, Starlink senses the time is ripe to enter; however, without any government approvals at hand, the announcement seems to be immature now. Additionally, the preorders for the Starlink are open, and one can add themselves to the priority list with a deposit of $99, or approximately Rs 7,350. To date, pre-orders have crossed more than 5,000. But, again, without a clear-cut time frame in place, it will be too early to comment on its availability, even by the end of next year.
Talking about the economic viability for Starlink to roll out its services in the country, the company needs to be cost-effective. Southern Canada, some parts of Europe, and the US are participating in Starlink’s “Better Than Nothing Beta” test. The cost goes like this:
- $99 a month
- Plus $499 for a kit with a tripod
- A WiFi router
- A terminal to connect to the Starlink satellites
Keeping the above factor in mind, India is a country with one of the cheapest mobile data in the world. The average cost per gigabyte of data remains at just $0.68/GB, well below the world’s average of $4.21. Secondly, the Reliance Jio effect and the growing competition among players in the market will further accelerate pricing downfall in the coming days. Thirdly, the BharatNet project, earlier known as National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), is the government’s flagship rural broadband connectivity programme already running with an aim to connect all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country by 2023.
Apart from these factors mentioned above, there are some concerns among the astronomers’ community as well. We haven’t heard much from Indian astronomers in particular, but the International Astronomical Union expressed concerns, as reported by Space.com in a statement released in June 2019. As per the statement, the satellite constellations may pose a significant or debilitating threat to some of the important existing and future astronomical infrastructures.
The non-governmental organisation further urges the policy-makers, designers and deployers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to understand and analyse the impact of satellite constellations. Space debris and light pollution are some of the other concerns. However, Patricia Cooper, Vice president of satellite government affairs at SpaceX, took notice of the concerns and promised to work in tandem. There is a need to speed up the process, and the government also needs to collaborate with the private providers to provide high-speed internet access to the most unserved areas.