During a keynote address at the Mobile World Congress, taking place in Barcelona, Spain this week, Elon Musk offered an update on SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service. Citing the service as “[f]illing in the gaps between 5G and fiber,” Musk highlighted several notable plans including a role for Starlink with mobile operators.
Musk reports SpaceX has launched over 1,500 Starlink satellites to date and operates in 12 countries. Combined, that constellation of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites can collectively transmit about 30 Tbps of data. The service has close to 70K active subscribers and Musk sees that number growing to a range of several hundred thousand to close to 500K in a year’s time.
Starlink Mobile Backhaul Opportunity
Beyond the core service of providing broadband access to lower density markets across the country (and the world), Musk shared a vision for Starlink acting as backhaul for mobile operatros from remote locations.
“We can’t talk about those deals today because our partners are about ready to announce them…I think it can be quite useful to a lot of telcos for data backhaul,” said Musk. “If you have cellular stations in remote regions, just using Starlink for data backhaul to their network can be a very cost effective way of doing data backhaul.”
Musk highlighted deals to come where Starlink will partner with mobile operators to help expand 5G to rural markets by allowing mobile operators to build 5G towers in rural areas, with backhaul provided by Starlink. He didn’t clarify where in the world those partnerships may operate.
LEO-delivered service like Starlink has been cited as a potential boost for rural mobile 5G, but in at least one report, it had nothing to do with backhaul.
As for offering broadband service to end customers, Musk admitted the CPE is priced too high. Even at $500, Musk revealed Starlink is losing over $500 for every end terminal. He hinted that lower cost terminals are coming and he expects the cost to get down to $250 – $300.
“To be totally frank, we are losing money on that terminal right now…that terminal costs us more than $1,000,” Musk said. “Obviously selling terminals at half price is not super compelling at scale.”
Musk added that the terminal was built for self-installs, and he claims end users can have it up in as little as five minutes.
Musk says the company expects to invest $5 billion to $10 billion before Starlink will be cash flow positive, with a total investment of $30 billion over time not out of the question.
One has to wonder how Musk and his Starlink team view the debate around broadband infrastructure, with potentially $65 billion being tossed around as an investment to enable universal broadband. SpaceX has already provisionally secured close to $1 billion through the RDOF program. Will it get more through a potential broadband infrastructure plan?
He joked that when asked at a previous conference what Starlink success would look like, he answered that success would be for it not to go bankrupt.