from the whoops-a-daisy dept
To be clear: SpaceX’s Starlink service is a game changer for those out of range of broadband access. Getting several hundred megabits per second in the middle of nowhere is a decidedly good thing, assuming you can afford the $600 hardware and $110 a month subscription cost.
That said, a few telecom analysts had quietly noted for years that the project lacked the capacity to be truly disruptive at any scale. Starlink has also long been priced well out of range for many; a problem given that high broadband prices are the primary obstacle to adoption for huge swaths of underserved America. Then there’s the company’s notoriously terrible customer service and long waitlist.
With that as context, it’s not particularly surprising that Starlink has signed up significantly fewer customers that originally projected. A paywalled Wall Street Journal report (see this non-paywalled Ars Technica alternative) notes that a 2015 Starlink investor pitch claimed that by last year Starlink would have 20 million subscribers and generate nearly $12 billion in revenue and $7 billion in operating profit.
Actual Starlink revenue for 2022 was $1.4 billion. And the company only has around 1.5 million users worldwide; a far cry from the 20 million originally predicted. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband is a sector riddled with failures, so the fact Starlink has reached this point is notable. But the Journal seemed surprised to learn that Starlink won’t change the world anytime soon:
“Starlink is bumping up against a reality articulated by many skeptics of satellite Internet,” the WSJ wrote. “The majority of the world’s population that the business could serve and that can afford high-speed broadband lives in cities. In those regions, Internet service is readily available, usually offers cheaper monthly costs than Starlink and doesn’t require specialized equipment.”
Unlike many of his other projects, Musk was actually fairly clear about the fact that Starlink wouldn’t have the capacity to be disruptive in populated cities. And he noted several times that the project might not be financially viable over the long haul (especially without subsidization, which we all know Musk hates — unless he’s the one being subsidized).
But even in more rural areas, 1.5 million isn’t much of an impact. The FCC (whose data is notoriously… optimistic) notes the U.S. alone has 20 million residents without any broadband access. Some 83 million Americans currently live under a monopoly. Starlink is a tiny drop in the bucket.
The laws of physics and limited capacity aren’t playing well with Musk’s continued decisions to quickly expand access to the service (RVs, airlines, luxury yachts). Over the last few years there have been increasing reports of significant service slowdowns as reality begins to inject itself into the equation. Speedtest provider Ookla has measured it, and found the service has slowed significantly in most countries.
While Starlink has certainly been useful in Ukraine, the flood of stories discussing Musk’s efforts to undermine Ukraine military efforts he personally disagrees with tend to overstate the size and importance of Starlink. Starlink’s customer service also doesn’t appear to be scaling very well, with users routinely noting it can be very difficult to get refunds or even a response email from the company.
So again… Starlink is useful for those out of range of traditional broadband who can afford it, but the idea that it was ever going to truly disrupt broadband access was mostly the byproduct of Musk fanboys and tech press outlets that weren’t fully paying attention. It’s never been something that was going to be disruptive at the kind of scale the company originally promised investors in pitch decks.
There are plenty of challenges on the horizon as well, including fewer government subsidies (a Trump attempt to give Musk’s Starlink a billion dollars for absolutely no reason has long-since fallen apart), a flood of LEO competitors (like Jeff Bezos) coming to market, and Musk’s ongoing erratic descent into tween 4chan memelord dipshittery all pose additional challenges for the service in the years ahead.