Elon Musk said his private rocket company SpaceX is prepared to spend up to $30bn to establish Starlink, its satellite internet network that now has 70,000 users across 12 countries.
Musk said Starlink is on track to provide global coverage — “everywhere except the poles” — by August and aims to have half a million users “within 12 months.”
SpaceX currently has 1,500 satellites in low orbit providing broadband internet service for Starlink, a service that fills the geographical gaps between areas covered by ground-based fibre connections and 5G, Musk said. At full capacity the service will have 12,000 satellites.
“It’s really meant for sparsely-populated regions,” said Musk, speaking from California in a video interview for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. “We’re really getting to parts of the world that are hardest to reach — the most difficult to reach 3 per cent, possibly 5 per cent.”
The $30bn investment figure cited by Musk was new and is multiples higher than earlier forecasts, though it is not clear if this projection can be compared directly with previous estimates. Musk said the numbers would vary depending on whether development of the Falcon 9 rocket is included.
In a 2018 TED Talk, chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said that establishing 12,000 satellites would cost “about $10bn or more”.
Musk said SpaceX expects to invest between $5-$10bn in Starlink before it becomes cash flow positive, and overall he estimated the costs at between $20bn and $30bn. “It’s a lot, basically,” he said.
Musk did not comment on Starlink’s revenue potential, but in the past has predicted that it could attain annual revenues of $30bn by 2025.
Musk acknowledged that all earlier attempts to provide constellation-based broadband services, going back to the 1990s, have failed. He joked that, a few years ago, his goal was simply to avoid bankruptcy.
The cost of a Starlink “terminal”, or satellite dish, is $499, plus a monthly subscription cost of $99. Musk said the hardware currently costs about twice what it is charging customers.
The billionaire entrepreneur also said Starlink has signed two big telecoms partnerships, but he declined to name them.
In December, the Starlink project was awarded almost $900m in US federal subsidies to support rural broadband connections. The award accounted for about one-tenth of a $9.2bn auction held by the Federal Communications Commission and will be distributed monthly over a decade.