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Starlink-rival OneWeb scores approval to launch satellite broadband services in India

OneWeb India, the local subsidiary of low-earth orbit operator Eutelsat OneWeb, has received the necessary approval from the country’s newly created space regulatory body to launch its commercial satellite broadband services in the South Asian nation.

The company said Tuesday it’s the first organization to receive authorization from the nodal agency to launch its satellite broadband services in the world’s second-largest internet user market — ahead of SpaceX’s Starlink and Reliance’s JioSpaceFiber. The launch is subject to spectrum allocation by the Indian government, however, which is yet to take place.

Earlier this month, OneWeb and JioSpaceFiber received licenses from the Indian telecom ministry, Department of Telecommunications, to provide broadband services through satellite connectivity in the country. OneWeb has received in-principle approval to set up two gateways — in the states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu — with aim to provide high-speed, low-latency internet connectivity to customers across India when its services are launched.

Bharti Airtel, which still owns more than a fifth of OneWeb and is the second largest wireless network provider in India, is counting on the satellite-beamed internet to pare down the data cost in the country, a top executive said at JP Morgan’s summit last month.

OneWeb already has full low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation up and running and by January 24, it is expected to enjoy global coverage including oceans and mountains. Akhil Gupta, vice chairman of Bharti Enterprises, said he believes satellites will be complementary to terrestrial connections and every smartphone will have in-built satellite connections in the medium-term that can help operators reduce cost per gigabyte.

“We are pleased to note the Indian space regulator’s green light to launch Eutelsat OneWeb’s commerical satellite broadband services in India,” said Bharti Group chairman and vice president (co-chair) of the board of directors at Eutelsat Group, Sunil Bharti Mittal, in a prepared statement. “Eutelsat OneWeb is ready to deploy as soon as it receives the final spectrum authorization to launch commercial services.”

The latest development follows Eutelsat Communications completing its all-share $3.4 billion deal with OneWeb, which was announced in July last year.

Like Eutelsat OneWeb, Reliance is keen to offer its satellite-based broadband services in the world’s most populous country. The company demonstrated its services last month and claimed it to be available “at highly affordable prices” to take on the competition and reach the masses. Nonetheless, neither Jio nor OneWeb have revealed the exact pricing details of their satellite-based broadband internet services.

SpaceX’s Starlink is also in the race to launch its satellite broadband services in India. The company registered its local business in India in late 2021 and hired a top executive in the country. However, it did not receive the license to operate in the South Asian market.

Similarly, Amazon is looking at India’s large internet population to expand its Project Kuiper. understands that the company hired a local executive in January to participate in the discussions and help sketch its local rollout plans.

Satellite companies are anticipating the greenlight from the government to start their satellite-based broadband services in the country. Sources familiar with the development told that while satellite broadband players are demanding administrative allotment to start their services in the country, telcos are asking for spectrum auctions.

India’s space race

Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe)’s move adds to the increasingly competitive nature of the space industry in Asia. China, currently second only to the U.S. in space endeavors, has launched 34% of total orbital launches in the past five years, Macquarie analysts wrote in a report this month.

India’s space sector has historically been primarily driven by the government, via the nation’s national space agency, ISRO. Private companies have played a supportive role as vendors and suppliers for government-led space initiatives. India’s space budget, at approximately $2 billion, is modest in comparison to those of the United States, China, and Japan, resulting in India holding an estimated 2% of the global space economy market share, according to Macquarie.

To supercharge the growth in the domestic space industry and increase its global presence, the Indian government introduced the Indian Space Policy in April 2023. This policy is a strategic move to encourage private sector involvement in a range of space-related activities, including the design, operation, and infrastructure development for space objects. The policy outlines roles for four key entities:

  • InSPACe is tasked with promoting and authorizing space activities within India.
  • The Department of Space (DOS) serves as the central department for the policy’s implementation.
  • New Space India Limited (NSIL) is charged with commercializing space technologies and platforms developed through public infrastructure.
  • ISRO will now primarily concentrate on the research and development of new space technologies and applications.

New Delhi’s recent push, including in developing its own global navigation satellite system NavIC, and the advances by ISRO, have prompted investors to see an opportunity in backing local firms.

“While India remains in very early stages of its domestic space industry, we believe there are already opportunities in satellite applications,” Macquarie wrote. “The rapidly growing digital maps market which applies satellite positioning technology for a variety of applications.”

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