from the not-that-innovative dept
We’ve noted for a while now how Elon Musk’s Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service isn’t going to have the impact many think. For one thing, the service can currently only provide service to a maximum of around 800,000 subscribers globally. For context, around 20-40 million people in the U.S. lack broadband, and 83 million live under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast).
Even with everything working perfectly, we’re talking about a service that’s only going to make a very tiny dent in a very large problem. And Starlink, as a business, isn’t working perfectly.
The lack of capacity (plus some supply chain issues) has greatly constrained subscriber totals, forcing most Starlink users onto a waiting list that for many can be more than a year. Many users on said waiting list have been trying to get refunds after a recent round of price hikes on a service they haven’t received yet, only to find a company that simply can’t or won’t respond to customer support and refund inquiries:
At the end of March 2022, Sbi requested a refund of his Starlink deposit because of the price hikes – but has had trouble getting his money back because he can’t get hold of the company.
“I feel I was scammed by Starlink,” Sbi said. “This is not fair business practices. The company had my money for over a year, I need that money back, there shouldn’t be any conditions on how to receive my money back.”
This sort of problem isn’t particularly uncommon over at Tesla or Tesla solar, either (the horror stories involving installs of the latter are the stuff of legend). All three efforts are widely heralded for innovation, yet can’t respond to extremely basic consumer support inquiries. Raising prices on Starlink customers already stuck in order purgatory has proven the final straw for many:
Rich Kecher, in south Virginia, said he’d had trouble getting his Starlink deposit refunded after about a year. He told Insider of an “outrageous lack of communication” from Starlink, which had pushed back its expected start-date for service in his area from November 2021 to late-2022.
“The price increase was the final straw,” Kecher said.
To be clear, Starlink provides an amazing upgrade for users in unserved areas. But that’s assuming you can get and afford it. A major issue in U.S. broadband access gaps is affordability, and a service with a $710 first month price tag is going to be well out of reach for many. Many others who can afford it will likely find themselves elbowed out by Musk acolytes who see Starlink ownership as a status symbol.
While Musk may be heralded as an innovator he’s not particularly innovative when it comes to customer service. He’s also not single-handedly able to defeat the laws of physics. Starlink capacity constraints are likely to result in a lot more of stories like this. And it’s not going to be helped with Starlink starting to partner with major airlines despite being unable to meet demand for existing pre-orders.
Eventually, to manage this capacity crunch, I’d imagine the service will implement network management tricks that annoy users further, whether that’s throttling of high definition and 4K video, or even usage caps and overage surcharges.
Even the hype-prone Musk has repeatedly acknowledged that Starlink will have limited impact and may not be financially viable over the longer term. The low orbit satellite broadband space is pock-marked with the wreckage of similar efforts, which is why many bristled at the $886 million in subsidies doled out to the company by the Trump FCC.
Most experts believe that if you’re going to subsidize broadband, it makes sense to throw that money at pushing future-proof fiber, then filling in the nooks and crannies with 5G and fixed wireless. Starlink can will help a little, but its innovation is greatly hamstrung if users can’t get it, can’t afford it, and can’t get the company to answer an email or pick up the phone.