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SpaceX’s Rural Development Project in India

Starlink will play an important role in catalyzing rural development in India.
Sanjay Bhargava, Starlink Country Director for India at SpaceX (source)

SpaceX Starlink is moving quickly in India. Last April, they said they would be offering service in 2022 and began accepting pre-orders. In July, SpaceX committed to manufacturing antenna systems and terminals in India and, at the end of September, Sanjay Bhargava, who had been with Elon Musk at Paypal, was selected to head Starlink in India. In the last week or two, they set up a wholly-owned subsidiary that will apply for licenses, seek Indian distribution partners, and attempt to sell 200,000 units—80% in rural districts—in 2022.

That’s an impressive business ramp-up, but something else caught my eye—a project committed to catalyzing rural development in India—an effort to be led by Bhargava’s wife Anita Kapur Bhargava who outlined the project in a short presentation (video and PDF). The project will begin by installing Starlink terminals in 20 Delhi schools and 80 terminals in a rural district that is near Delhi. (India is comprised of 752 districts with an average population of 164 million). In the second phase of the project, Bhargava and the National Institution for Transforming India will select 12 rural districts in north, south, west, and east India as “labs to build solutions that are globally scalable” and potential solution providers in those districts are encouraged to apply for mentoring. She did not elaborate on the sorts of support a lab district would receive, but one option might be to establish an incubator or co-working space in each. The “stretch goal” of the project is to install 200,000 terminals, 160,000 in rural districts, by December 2022.

The project goals are to increase district GDP, create jobs for all and move the district toward meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Bhargava outlined a four-dimension project framework during the presentation and gave examples of its application in 8 areas. Let’s consider one of those application areas—school broadband—to illustrate her framework.

Broadband in Every School – Broadband for education is a necessity, not an option. Source: Starlink Satellite Communications Pvt LTD - Catalyzing Rural Development, NOV 1, 2021

High-quality broadband is the development catalyst in this example and solution providers will be required to install and maintain equipment and develop curricula, applications, and content. Nudging refers to behavioral change in politicians and others—in this example school administrators and those responsible for certification and hiring standards. The MeTROs (measurable, time-bound real outcomes) are jobs for 80% at age 16 and higher education for 20% at 18. (Note the emphasis on jobs and vocational education).

Note that both Starlink and OneWeb are listed as catalysts. OneWeb has worked with partners since its inception and Sanjay Bhargava notes that “To make even one district 100% broadband we require a large amount of capital and all broadband providers to collaborate. This is not a competition.”

Neither Starlink nor OneWeb will have sufficient capacity to serve all of India’s LEO broadband satellite demand. Furthermore, OneWeb and the other forthcoming LEO satellite ISPs, Telesat and Amazon, have different orbital characteristics and design strengths. For example, Telesat might have an edge in focusing bandwidth on high-demand locations like airports, and Amazon’s integrated terrestrial services and orbital inclination may give it an advantage with enterprise clients. Starlink seems to be focusing on individual consumers and it has been reported that they may offer subsidies in India. All LEO operators, including China’s Guowang SatNet, have an existential motivation to collaborate on collision avoidance.

While there is room for several satellite service providers, OneWeb and Starlink India have something in common—both are headed by Indians who are well aware of the role of the Internet in pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and India’s history of efforts to close the digital divide.

Development projects are generally funded by governments or non-governmental organizations and they involve a lengthy application and evaluation process. By contrast, phase one of this project was funded by SpaceX as soon as they formed an Indian subsidiary and hired Sanjay Bhargava. This small example of private funding of a development project—which will eventually pay a return—is reminiscent of SpaceX’s effort to secure a contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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