It's a new year, and SpaceX is looking to build on the success it saw across 2021. Already planning several launches, it's business as usual.
But its Starlink broadband internet division isn't doing so well out of the gate. As the division hopes to expand, it's facing pockets of problems in different countries.
Starlink India Loses Its Boss
The latest hurdle for Starlink comes from India - one of the world's biggest internet markets. Early this year, Sanjay Bhargava, head of Starlink India, stepped down from his role. In a LinkedIn post, Bhargava confirmed he left Starlink India's chief position for personal reasons.
Bhargava had only been in the position three months. His LinkedIn profile shows he started on October 1. The former PayPal executive was tasked with driving Starlink's entry into India - a country with over a billion people and a thriving internet market. While his ascension to the position was heralded - by even Elon Musk - things soon started to go wrong.
In November, India's Ministry of Communications published a statement instructing the company to stop accepting orders for its service immediately. It turned out Starlink was operating in the country without the necessary license and regulatory clarity. The communications ministry explained it would allow no operations without proper approvals.
Starlink Stopped In Its Tracks
The statement immediately put a halt to Starlink's plans. The company understands the significance of India's market and was already taking orders, looking to deploy a greater force in the country.
Starlink's $99 preorders were getting flooded as well. When Bhargava started his job, he stated in a LinkedIn post that the company had already received over 5,000 preorders. Bhargava explained that the company was aiming for up to 200,000 active Starlink terminals by December - and he emphasized the importance of government approval.
In a document shared through his post, Bhargava said getting approval from the Indian government is very complex. A month later, he wrote a separate post claiming SpaceX had successfully incorporated its service in India with a subsidiary called Starlink Satellite Communications Private Limited (SSCPL).
Starlink has since fallen out with the Indian government and cannot take preorders. The company's website for Indian customers now states:
"Starlink is not yet available in your area due to pending regulatory approval. As we receive approvals, our coverage area will continue to expand, so please check back for future availability in your area."
Hours before Bhargava's resignation, reports confirmed that SpaceX had emailed Starlink's Indian customers, informing them it would refund deposits and wait until the company is licensed to operate in the country.
"Unfortunately, the timeline for receiving licenses to operate is currently unknown, and there are several issues that must be resolved with the licensing framework to allow us to operate Starlink in India," SpaceX said in an email dated January 4.
Time to Buckle Up and Restrategize
The news adds to a pile of challenging reports about Starlink. Recently, Chinese space authorities filed a report with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), accusing SpaceX of endangering the lives of their astronauts in space.
The report alleged SpaceX flew its Starlink satellites too close to Tianhe - the upcoming Chinese space station still in development. The report pointed out that a Starlink satellite had come in close proximity to Tianhe on at least two occasions.
Tianhe is the most important of three separate modules that will form China's space station. It was launched into orbit last year and already houses several astronauts. Jonathan McDowell, a journalist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, confirmed the near-misses in a graph he shared on social media. Now, it's on SpaceX to ensure Starlink satellites don't cause trouble.
Starlink has already been heavily criticized on social media for close encounters with Tianhe, the bulk of the criticism coming from concerned Chinese citizens. The company has yet to offer a statement on the findings, but there is little doubt it will focus on ensuring such close encounters don't happen again.
As for the Indian issue, dialogue with the proper regulators is the solution. Whether India's communications ministry will be open to dialogue remains to be seen, but SpaceX at least has to try. Missing out on the Indian market is not a good look for the company, and it will want to avoid that outcome at all costs.