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With Starlink Caught in Red Tape, Jio & Airtel Eye Satellite Broadband Pie

Airtel, Tata and Amazon are also reportedly looking to enter the satellite broadband market in India

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Jio Platforms Ltd and global satellite-based content connectivity solutions provider SES on Monday announced a joint venture to deliver affordable broadband services in the country via satellite technology, the former said in a press release.

Jio has entered into a multi-year capacity purchase agreement with Luxembourg-based SES, with a total contract value of about $100 million.

“This joint venture will be a catalyst for connecting the unconnected areas within India and the region to the full range of digital services, offering access to remote health, government services, and distance learning opportunities,” the release said.

In January, Bharti Airtel had announced that it was partnering with US-based Hughes Communications to offer satellite-based broadband services in India. Tata and Amazon are also reportedly looking into the space.

Meanwhile, Starlink is struggling to set up shop in India. The Elon Musk owned venture has received orders from the Indian government to halt operations and refund all its pre-orders until it receives licences to operate in the country.

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Jio Space Technology Limited

The joint venture 'Jio Space Technology Limited' will use multi-orbit space networks that is a combination of geostationary (GEO) and medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellations capable of delivering multi-gigabit links and capacity to enterprises, mobile backhaul and retail customers across India and neighbouring regions.

Reliance and SES will own 51 percent and 49 percent stake in the joint venture respectively.

"While we continue to expand our fibre-based connectivity and FTTH (fibre to the home) business and invest in 5G, this new joint venture with SES will further accelerate the growth of multi-gigabit broadband."
Akash Ambani, Director of Jio

The venture will have access to a capacity of up to 100 Gbps through SES and will leverage Jio's position and sales reach in India. The latter will offer managed services and gateway infrastructure operations services to the joint venture.

"This joint venture with JPL is a great example of how SES can complement even the most extensive terrestrial networks to deliver high-quality connectivity, and positively affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people," said Steve Collar, CEO of SES.

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Airtel, Amazon, Tata

In January 2022, Airtel had announced a joint venture with Hughes Communications. This joint venture is entering into a six-year partnership with UK-based OneWeb (partly owned by Airtel) to offer satellite-based broadband services in India, through low earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

This partnership has access to 200,000 very-small-aperture terminals (VSATs) which are two-way satellite ground stations with dish antennas.

Nelco, an arm of Tata Group, is also in talks with Canadian firm Telesat’s Lightspeed brand to offer satellite broadband services in the country by 2024, Business Insider reported.

Amazon is also looking to enter the satellite-based broadband services market in India according to an Economic Times report. It is investing over $10 billion to build a constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites as part of its global space internet initiative, Project Kuiper. It hasn't officially disclosed its plans for India yet.

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Starlink Hits a Roadblock

Starlink is SpaceX's satellite internet constellation, which aims to provide low-cost internet to remote locations. The service already has 1,469 Starlink satellites active and 272 moving to operational orbits soon, according to Musk.

"While most satellite internet services today come from single geostationary satellites that orbit the planet at about 35,000km, Starlink is a constellation of multiple satellites that orbit the planet much closer to Earth, at about 550 km, and cover the entire globe," says SpaceX.

The service reportedly had more than 5,000 pre-orders for its devices in India but is struggling to obtain commercial licences, without which the government won’t allow it to operate in the country.

It has now been instructed to initiate refunds on all pre-orders. "As has always been the case, you can receive a refund at any time," the company said in an email to one of its customers, Reuters reported.

“Unfortunately, the timeline for receiving licences to operate is currently unknown, and there are several issues that must be resolved with the licensing framework to allow us to operate Starlink in India,” the company said.

Starlink had registered its business in India on 1 November and had started pre-selling its service, according to the agency. It was hoping to have applied for a commercial license on or before 31 January 2022.

According to a social media post by Sanjay Bhargava, who was Starlink's director in India, the company was also aiming to have 200,000 Starlink devices in the country by December 2022.

However, Bhargava has since stepped down from his post due to "personal reasons".

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India’s Need for Satellite Based Broadband

One of the strengths of satellite-based broadband is that it can get high-speed, low latency internet to remote locations that terrestrial internet infrastructure struggles to reach. This could be immensely useful in India’s semi-urban and rural areas with poor internet or telecom connectivity.

According to World Bank data, about 59 percent of the Indian population doesn't have access to the internet while 17 percent lack mobile cellular subscriptions.

In March 2021, Parliament was told that around 25,000 villages are not connected to the mobile and internet grid in India. Odisha has the highest number of such villages, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

“With additional coverage and capacity offered by satellite communications services, Jio will be able to connect the remotest towns and villages, enterprises, government establishments, and consumers to the new Digital India."
Akash Ambani, Director of Jio

Starlink has also indicated that it is planning to "catalysing rural development" in India through its internet services. According to a company presentation shared by Bhargava on LinkedIn, it will first give 100 devices for free to schools in Delhi and nearby rural districts and then target 12 rural districts across India.

The company aims to have 200,000 Starlink devices in India by December 2022, 80 percent of which will be in rural districts, the presentation mentioned.

(With inputs from Business Insider and Economic Times)

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Topics:  Tata   Airtel   SpaceX 

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