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Battle of billionaires: Musk's Starlink eyes India, Ambani resists

Published 06/22/2023, 04:55 AM
Updated 06/22/2023, 05:01 AM
© Reuters. The Starlink logo is seen in front of the Indian flag in this illustration taken, June 21, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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By Aditya Kalra, Munsif Vengattil and Aditi Shah

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Elon Musk is eager to bring his Starlink satellite broadband to India, but the world's richest man faces strong resistance from Mukesh Ambani, Asia's wealthiest, who runs Indian telecom giant Reliance Jio.

Following a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the U.S. on Tuesday, Musk said he was keen to launch Starlink in India which "can be incredibly helpful" in remote villages that have no internet or lack high-speed services.

What he didn't talk about is how Starlink is at odds with Ambani's Reliance over the government's distribution of satellite broadband spectrum, setting the stage for a battle between two of the world's richest men for satellite services in the world's most populous nation.

Starlink is lobbying India to not auction the spectrum but just assign licences in line with a global trend, saying it is a natural resource that should be shared by companies. An auction may impose geographical restrictions that will raise costs, it said in company letters made public by the Indian government this month.

Reliance disagrees and has called for an auction in a public submission to the government, saying foreign satellite service providers could offer voice and data services and compete with traditional telecom players, and so there must be an auction to achieve a level playing field.

In signs of deepening rivalry, an industry source with direct knowledge said Reliance will continue nudging the Indian government to auction satellite spectrum, and not agree to the demands of foreign companies.

The stakes are high for Musk. His push comes after a 2021 attempt to launch Starlink in India ran afoul of local regulators for taking bookings without a license, and just as he is in talks with India to set up a Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) factory.

For Ambani, keeping foreign competition at bay in satellite broadband will be another shot in the arm - his Reliance Jio already has 439 million telecom users, making it the market leader, and 8 million wired broadband connections, a 25% market share.

Starlink's view on auctions is shared by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN)'s satellite internet initiative, Project Kuiper, and the British government-backed OneWeb.

Amazon declined comment. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, OneWeb and Starlink parent SpaceX, did not respond.

Asked for comment, Reliance referred Reuters to its own and Starlink's government submissions.

AUCTION VS LICENSING

Of the 64 responses from companies, industry groups and others to India's public consultation on satellite spectrum, 48 favoured licensing, 12 voted for an auction, with the rest neutral, according to India's Koan Advisory.

A second industry source said Reliance believes opening the floodgates to established foreign players like Starlink without an auction will allow them "runaway success" just like Amazon, which will hurt Indian firms and create an uneven playing field.

Ambani's Reliance Retail has locked horns with Amazon, but lags the U.S. rival in market share in the e-commerce space.

Deloitte says India's satellite broadband service market will grow 36% a year to reach $1.9 billion by 2030.

Starlink says it is already authorised in 84 administrations around the world and has 1.5 million active users of its low-latency broadband services. Amazon plans to launch its first set of satellites in 2024.

Foreign satellite internet firms are concerned an auction by India will raise the likelihood of other nations following suit, increasing costs and investments, said one of the sources, an Indian adviser to a foreign company.

If India decides on holding an auction, OneWeb will find it difficult to do business in the country, said an industry source. Starlink is waiting for clarity on India's spectrum allocation before firming up its commercial strategy, another source said.

© Reuters. The Starlink logo is seen in front of the Indian flag in this illustration taken, June 21, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Tim Farrar, an analyst at US-based consultancy TMF Associates, said it would set a "bad precedent" for Starlink to pay a substantial auction amount in India when it is obtaining low-cost licenses in many other countries.

"I'd expect Starlink to make high-profile free offers elsewhere in order to try and demonstrate what India could be missing out on," he said.

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