MWC 2021: Musk earmarks $30bn for Starlink satellite project

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Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.

Pretoria-born Elon Musk, founder and CEO of aerospace products manufacturer SpaceX, forecasts the total investment cost of his satellite internet project will be as much as $30 billion in the long-term.

The billionaire entrepreneur first announced plans in 2015 to launch Starlink, an array of low-orbit satellites, offering a low latency, high-speed broadband internet system to meet the needs of consumers across the globe.

SpaceX bills Starlink, now present in 12 countries globally, as a next-generation satellite network capable of connecting the globe, especially those who are not yet connected, with reliable and affordable broadband internet services.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress 2021 yesterday,Musk discussed Starlink’s progress in technology and subscriber growth, noting the internet service is on track to garner 500 000 users within the next 12 months, as it edges closer to 70 000 current active users.

“There is a need for connectivity in places that either don’t have it at the moment, or where connectivity is very limited and most difficult to reach, or even where it is expensive,” explained Musk.

“The positive cash flow already invested [in the project] is at least $5 billion and may be as much as $10 billion. We will keep investing a great deal after that point, in order to not be made irrelevant by continued improvements in cellular and/or lower cost GTO [geostationary transfer orbit] signal satellites.

“We need to be able to offer our services at lower prices than GTO satellite connectivity, so over time we could spend $20 billion to $30 billion. That’s a lot basically.”

Musk, also founder of American electric vehicle and clean energy company Tesla, has previously been quoted comparing the Starlink project to “re-building the internet in space”.

Convenient, next-gen connectivity

SpaceX, which began deploying Starlink satellites in 2019, reportedly envisions the success of the project to vastly expand the reach of broadband internet around the world, and eventually connect Tesla vehicles, while providing traders with a fast internet speed trading platform.

While the service will also be available in Africa, industry insiders have been wondering whether the continent’s citizens would be able to afford it.

By tapping into Starlink satellites, Africa could potentially meet the ever-growing demand for trusted broadband services on the continent, according to wireless and satellite solutions provider Q-Kon.

Discussing the price packages,Musk noted that a once-off fee of $500 is payable, following which a monthly subscription fee of $100 would be required.

“We’re losing money on that terminal, so we are working on next-gen terminals that provide the same level of capability, but cost a lot less – that’s our next area of development. Over time, we are hoping to reduce the $500 fee to…I don’t know maybe $300 or even $250. It’s the same price all over the world; the only difference would be the taxes and import duties and exchange rates, which we have to take into account.”

He stated the installation is simple and would not require a professional installer, as the majority of the customer base would be in very remote areas.

“Because we targeted mostly remote regions, like some people living in a cabin high out on the mountains, we designed our system to not need a professional installer. So five minutes after taking it out of the box, you will be connected – as long as it’s pointed towards the sky, that’s all they need.”

The satellite connectivity industry has been opening up in recent years, with new entrants setting up shop in the local market, which is already dominated by thelikes of Q-Kon,MorClick andLink Communications Systems.

When asked what distinguishes Starlink from other newly-launched global competitors such as Amazon and OneWeb satellite services, Musk pointed out: “From a technology standpoint, Starlink is quite different from prior constellations in that the tech we are deploying is on disparate bands. What happens often with space-based technologies, ironically, is that they tend to be orbit technology that exists on the ground.

“So we took the initiative to make technologies that are in some ways more advanced than orbit technology. So we have the most advanced of base ray technologies that nobody else has, at launch level, and that’s very important because we can programme the system to achieve greater efficiency.”

He added that Starlink has significant partnerships with major telcos across the globe and it is in discussions to sign more partnership deals with other telcos, as it charts its global expansionplans.

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