Information Technology

Starlink faces DoT scrutiny over sale of beta services

Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellite Internet service faces Department of Telecommunication (DoT) scrutiny even before starting its operations in India. The DoT is examining if Starlink does not comply with Indian laws while offering pre bookings for its services.

Starlink’s operations in India

Starlink opened pre-bookings for several places across the world including certain areas in India (India Colony Road Bapunagar, Ahmedabad and Indian Coffee House Road, Indore). A person can pre-book the services for a refundable amount of $99 (equivalent to 7300 INR). The services of Starlink  will be available on “first come first serve basis” from 2022 in India.

The company promises to provide internet speeds of 50 to 150 mbps in remote locations and aims to double it to 300 mbps by next year. According to Starlink, the services are ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has been a challenge.

Starlink is accepting payments via credit and debit cards and Apple Pay. Apple Pay does not function in India yet.

In November 2020, SpaceX requested the Government of India to facilitate approvals for Starlink Satellite Internet service to further internet access in remote areas of India.

The objections

Earlier this month, The Broadband India Forum (BIF), a body which represents Amazon, Facebook, Google, Hughes and Microsoft, had written to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to block pre-selling of the beta version of its Starlink.

T. V. Ramchandran, the president of the BIF, claimed that SpaceX does not have the license and permissions to offer such services in India. He also requested the Indian government to “urgently intervene to protect fair competition and adherence to existing policy and regulatory norms.”

Further, The BIF claims that Starlink does not have its own ground or earth stations on Indian land nor satellite frequency authorization from regulatory body, ISRP and the DoT to offer beta services in the country. Therefore, it is “non compliant to existing guidelines” which state that no commercial launch can be executed during the testing phase of communication services, Mr. Ramchandran added.

Following the complaint, DoT started scrutinizing Starlink’s beta phase in India. The Department is evaluating whether Starlink violates the Information Technology Act, 2000, The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and the Satellite Communication (SatCom) Policy of India, 2000. In addition to this, the department is also looking if Starlink adversely affects the consumer interest and national security of the nation. If the DoT finds any discrepancy, it will send a notice to the company.

A senior DoT officer told ET news that the offer by Starlink does not “immediately appear” to violate Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, “as SpaceX is yet to establish, maintain or work a telegraph in the Indian Jurisdiction” … “But the DoT is yet to firm up its final views”.

The definition Telegraph under the Indian Telegraph Act includes any appliance, instrument or apparatus use for transmission or reception of signals, images, data and sounds/intelligence by wire or other electro-magnetic emissions.

Competition in SatCom

SpaceX already 1200 functioning satellites in low-earth orbit, closer to the planet than traditional satellites. It will give an edge to Space X to roll out its services, expanding its customer base and ultimately revenue. It has been launching Starlink satellites on its Falcon 9 rockets in batches of 60 at a time. On Jan 20, 2021, it successfully launched the 17th batch. The company is growing its dominance in the orbit expeditiously.

Starlink is a competitor for the satellite communication services such as OneWeb, a SatCom, co-owned by Bharti Group and the UK government and Kuiper of Amazon. OneWeb plans to launch 648 satellites in orbit out of which it has launched 146 satellites so far.

There are other concerns regarding too much traffic in lower orbit that will create hurdles for astronomers to see the space. Two days back, OneWeb and Starlink’s satellites nearly collided in the space.

Update (23rd April) : The Economic Times reported that the department of telecommunications is set to write to SpaceX. It will ask the company to share details of its India plans to determine if it requires both internet service provider (ISP) and VSAT (very small aperture terminal) service authorizations under the unified license regulations, or just one to offer high speed satellite internet services in the country.

Apart from the type of license, the department is also likely to ask the specific nature of services it wants to offer in India, the spectrum band it proposes to use, and the foreign satellite capacity it will tap to deliver high speed internet services.

The department is also likely to consult the Department of Space if Starlink needs to apply to the Indian National Space Promotion & Authorisation Centre to secure landing rights to use signals of foreign satellites in India for its services.

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Adv. Bhagyashree Swami

Bhagyashree is a qualified advocate practicing in criminal/ cyber law and a certified CIPP/ E data protection professional. She has a great academic record with a LLM degree in Computer and Communication Laws from Queen Mary University of London. She also holds technical expertise in the area of digital forensics and investigation.

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