Future Tense

Is Starlink Doomed to Modest Success?

Four streaks in a starry sky.
A Starlink satellite leaves a track over Denmark in April 2020. Mads Claus Rasmussen/Getty Images

This winter, a massive underwater volcano erupted near the Pacific island nation of Tonga. The eruption was massive, killing at least four people and triggering a tsunami. And on Jan. 15, when it reached its climax, it also disconnected Tonga from the outside world. The eruption severed the only internet cable that connects the archipelago of Tonga to the global internet, and the country spent about a week with no internet.

On Jan. 21, Elon Musk tweeted, “Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals?” The company ended up sending 50 terminals of Starlink, a satellite internet service. A narrative spread on social media that Musk had swooped in to save the day. But the reality on the islands was more complicated. It actually took longer for Starlink to arrive in the country than it took for the state-backed cable company to fix the repair, and the head of the state telecom group said that he was not really able to find any use for the terminals himself.

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The story of Tonga’s internet access feels like a bit of a pattern for Starlink: bold ambition but only modest success. On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Meaghan Tobin, a reporter for the website Rest of World, about whether Starlink can ever fulfill its promise of connecting the world, especially places left behind by traditional internet. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: Starlink is an offshoot of Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, that provides internet via satellite. The satellites are grouped in constellations that operate at a lower orbit than traditional ones used for internet communication. What makes Starlink different?

Meaghan Tobin: The innovation of Starlink is that the satellites are much closer to Earth, so the speed at which people can connect to the internet is a lot faster, in theory. In practice, one of the limitations of this technology is that a lot of people cannot use it all at the same time. And it’s kind of an inherent limitation to the physics of how low Earth orbit satellites work. So the only way to be able to get more people connected at the speed that low Earth orbit satellites offer is to get more satellites up there.

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Starlink has fewer than 2,000 satellites in operation, though the current constellation is authorized for more than 4,000. The company wants to launch as many as 30,000, and it’s not alone in its low Earth orbit goals. Jeff Bezos’ company, Project Kuiper, wants to launch a similar kind of small satellite to deliver internet access, as does a company called OneWeb that’s backed by SoftBank. But right now, Starlink is the undisputed leader. It seems like something that would be perfect for the parts of the world where there isn’t a lot of underground cable or undersea cable, right?

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In theory, yeah. It definitely solves a lot of issues of traditional internet infrastructure. You sign up and you get sent a piece of equipment, fondly referred to in many Reddit forums as “Dishy.” And so you program in your location and Dishy basically does the rest for you. You don’t have to be near any major fiber. You don’t have to be connected through a major telecom company. You don’t have to pay enormous Verizon bills. So, for a certain segment of the population and for people who live in certain places, this is a really appealing idea.

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In June 2021, Elon Musk said that Starlink would be a reimagining of the internet and would get to the parts of the world that are hard to reach. At the Mobile World Congress, he said they should have global connectivity everywhere except the by August 2021. At the time, how was that promise received?

People were really excited about it. This was seen as a revolution in connectivity—it was going to finally solve issues of internet access all over the world. And it also made his competitors really nervous. There was a big push to get more of these satellites launched and get more funding into this type of technology as fast as possible. But like a lot of things that Elon boasts about, it’s not quite as easily executed in practice.

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Here we are not quite a year out from that speech. Where would you say the connectivity is now? Was that global promise delivered on?

As of now, it absolutely hasn’t been. Recent data from Cloudflare and also self-reported data to Reddit show that 98 percent of Starlink users are located in the West. They’re in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. There are some notable exceptions: Service was made available in Chile. But for the most part, users are overwhelmingly in Canada and the United States and Europe. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people in rural parts of these countries that really need internet access. Starlink is definitely solving a problem for those people. But in terms of delivering on the promise of connecting the entire globe, that’s absolutely not happening. That was one of the things that I was really interested in my reporting, to talk to people in India, who had been on the wait list and expected to receive Starlink technology this month.

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You talked to one entrepreneur in India’s Assam state, who preordered Starlink, thinking it might revolutionize his business. He runs an adventure tourism startup and imagined that the satellite internet would allow him to attract digital nomads who could work from the area. He and his business partner also thought they could give their neighbors a boost.

They were expecting that they could use their Starlink terminal to provide connectivity for the area that they’re in. They didn’t just want it for their own business or their own customers. They also figured like, “Hey, kids in the neighborhood could come by and use the internet.”

But so far it hasn’t worked out. In India, regulators have yet to license Starlink. And in January the government ordered the company to refund anyone who had already paid for the service, which costs about $600 to set up and $110 per month. It’s also worth noting that India’s largest telecom company has a direct stake in OneWeb, one of Starlink’s competitors. But Starlink has faced delays in other places, too. The expected service date in South Africa was pushed from 2022 to 2023, with no explanation. And the company is also contending with the global semiconductor shortage.

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In concept, it seems like Starlink, or SpaceX, is really the right company to execute on this internet-beamed-from-space idea. They have a great track record of getting objects into space. But it’s not actually as simple as that on the ground. There are a lot of challenges from governments and lobbyists and entrench interests and supply chains that are a lot harder to control.

I feel like we should note that Starlink has had one incredibly high-profile, good experience—in Ukraine. Can you tell that story?

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Absolutely. Right after the Russians invaded Ukraine, the country’s minister of information technology [Mykhailo Federov] tweeted Elon, saying basically “Can you send in Starlink? Russia is here, and we’re worried about our internet communications.” And within days, there was a delivery of Starlink terminals to the country and Starlink service was running. I think it was within four days. So, on the surface, that really seems like an incredibly quick turnaround time, incredible success. And it really has been extremely helpful to a number of people and essential services in the country. A lot of hospitals and energy companies have received Starlink equipment. But the backstory is that Starlink was working behind the scenes for, I think, six weeks before the Russian invasion to already try and get service to the country. So it was already next on their list as a place to start offering service. So, once Federov tweeted, they were basically able to just flip a switch and make it happen. The Washington Post has reported that there are about 5,000 Starlink terminals that have been delivered to Ukraine. And that close to 1,500 of them were paid for by USAID. So it also was not entirely the goodness of Elon’s heart donating all of these terminals for free. Some of the connectivity has been directly funded by the American government.

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One aspect of this that I find particularly interesting is who the customer is.  The goal of connecting people in remote places seems so worthy, but I can’t get my head around the idea, number one, that the price point is accessible. But number two, that Starlink is going to make money for SpaceX at a scale that makes it worth their while.

Elon has said from the beginning that Starlink is going to be a commercial revenue generator for SpaceX, that it’s going to be such a widespread success that it’s going to fund additional rocket launches. It’s really difficult to see, in the case of a place like Tonga, how they’re going to fund that scale of revenue from a country of a 100,000 people scattered across the Pacific. It’s really challenging to imagine that a lot of these markets are actually going to generate the scale of revenue that Starlink would need to be a major profit stream for SpaceX. At that end, it’s kind of obvious that they’re doubling down on serving markets where people can already afford to pay for it.

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Do you read this as a story of Elon Musk’s big promises that have fallen short, or is it more complicated? Is it about the market and the cost of providing internet service?

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That was definitely the main starting point for the story. We were reporting on the play by play of getting the internet reconnected in Tonga. It was really interesting to see how many Western media outlets had reported that Starlink was delivering service there. And really they had all said, “Starlink has sent terminals.” But no one had actually said, “People are using Starlink for the internet in this place.” And I think that discrepancy is really important. It is a lot about can Starlink fulfill the promise of getting technology to people all over the world? So far, it really hasn’t delivered on that.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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