Elon Musk wants to bring Starlink to the Indian market — but he’ll have to get around India’s richest tycoon first

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  • Elon Musk said he hopes to bring SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service to India.
  • He’s coming up against Asia’s richest person Mukesh Ambani, who runs telecom giant Reliance Jio.
  • SpaceX is lobbying the government to assign licenses for satellite services, but Reliance is calling for a public auction.

Elon Musk is eyeing the massive Indian market, saying he hopes to bring SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service into the country after meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week.

Musk told reporters on Tuesday he was keen to launch Starlink in India as the service “can be incredibly helpful” in remote villages, per India’s ANI agency.

But Musk, who is the CEO of SpaceX, is coming up against strong competition in the form of billionaire Mukesh Ambani.

Ambani is the chairman and managing director of conglomerate Reliance Industries. He’s Asia’s richest person, with a net worth of nearly $88 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Ambani’s Reliance owns telecommunications giant Reliance Jio, the leading telecom provider in India with 439 million users, per Reuters.

The two companies have different stances on how the Indian government’s satellite broadband spectrum should be distributed, Reuters reported.

Musk’s Starlink is lobbying the Indian government to assign licenses for satellite service in line with the global practice, arguing it’s a natural resource to be distributed among companies, according to Reuters. Ambani’s Reliance Jio is taking the opposite stance and calling for a public auction to ensure a level playing field for both foreign and domestic players in the traditional telecom space.

Reliance will continue lobbying the Indian government for an auction, Reuters reported, citing an industry source with direct knowledge of the matter.

SpaceX and Reliance did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Insider.

Musk’s companies have already had several false starts in India. 

SpaceX started taking bookings for Starlink’s service in India in 2021, but was told by authorities to apply for a license first. His electric vehicle company Tesla has also been eyeing the market for years but held back on selling its cars in India due to high import taxes. But Tesla is not giving up.

“I am confident that Tesla will be in India and will do so as soon as humanly possible,” Musk told reporters on Tuesday.

India’s market-access barriers are another complication

Earlier this year, India overtook China as the world’s most populous country. India has also been trying to unseat China as the factory of the world.

But India has a history of trade protectionism that makes it difficult to do business in the country, although Modi — who first came into power in 2014 — pledged economic reforms, including easing foreign direct investment policies.

Still, India is the world’s largest democracy, so decision-making can be complicated.

Also complicating the situation is the Indian government’s campaign to promote self-reliance, which was kickstarted in May 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“US exporters are being pressured to start manufacturing their products locally to retain market access, particularly if similar goods are not already produced in India,” the US International Trade Administration, or ITA, said in a market overview of India. “As part of its self-reliance movement, India has introduced market access barriers in the form of tariffs, localization requirements, indigenous standards requirements, and labeling practices, price controls, and import restrictions.”

Even so, India is a massive market with lots of opportunities — although it requires planning for a much longer timeline and adopting strategies for different states, the ITA added, citing US companies already operating in the country.

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