Billionaires Mittal and Ambani take on Musk in India’s internet space race

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India’s biggest telecom companies, led by rival billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal, are primed to launch satellite internet services as they challenge Elon Musk’s attempts to establish Starlink in the country.

Bharti Airtel’s joint venture with Eutelsat OneWeb, the Anglo-French satellite communications group, could start operating as early as June and Ambani’s JioSpaceFiber expects to follow later this year, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Musk’s SpaceX, the owner of Starlink, has been trying to enter the country for more than three years, but has not won regulatory approvals and was rebuked in 2021 by local authorities for signing up customers without having the proper licences.

During Narendra Modi’s visit to the US last year, Musk told the Indian prime minister that he was eager to bring Starlink to the country with the goal of servicing isolated regions that had little or no high-speed internet.

Mittal’s company has taken the early lead in India’s internet space race. Unlike its competitors, it has obtained all the necessary approvals and can immediately launch once the new government allocates satellite spectrum following the national elections that ended in early June. Modi is set to govern in a coalition alliance after his Bharatiya Janata party lost its outright majority.

“Once you do get connectivity, people tend not to change their providers,” said Santosh Tiwari, a Bengaluru-based partner at consultancy EY Parthenon, which estimates satellite internet in India is a potential $1bn revenue market.

“The focus will be on business-to-business internet — that’s where most of the money will come from”, Tiwari said. “Retail internet across those areas, that rollout will possibly take more time.”

Bharti Airtel was in discussions to provide internet to India’s army and navy in remote areas without conventional broadband services, said one of the people close to the company, adding that it had “a leg up compared to the competition”.

Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which owns India’s largest telecoms network with just over half of the nation’s 924mn wireless and wired broadband subscribers, is still awaiting the nod from the nation’s space industry regulator, IN-SPACe.

The full rollout of JioSpaceFiber, Reliance’s joint venture with Luxembourg satellite network provider SES, may be outlined at the conglomerate’s annual meeting. The meeting is usually in August, when Ambani was known to make major announcements, said one of the people.

The product will serve as a small business-to-business “niche” offering, with Jio’s main focus remaining on expanding broadband internet access across the country of 1.4bn, according to another.

However, even if Ambani and Mittal are able to secure approvals ahead of Musk, it is unlikely they will ever be able to rival Starlink’s network of more than 6,000 low-orbit satellites and SpaceX’s near-monopoly on reusable rockets, with more than 100 launches forecast this year.

Starlink was well established and “could start quickly” in India, said an industry executive, but “they don’t have gateways into the country, they are much further behind”.

India’s local media reported in April that the provider had received tentative approvals from the country’s telecom ministry ahead of Musk’s highly anticipated trip to New Delhi, when he was expected to announce the establishment of a Tesla factory.

But Musk cancelled the visit at the last minute and travelled to neighbouring rival China. There have not been further updates on Starlink’s approvals or the Tesla factory since then.

Bharti Airtel, Reliance, SpaceX, along with India’s space regulator and the department of telecommunications, did not respond to requests for comment.

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