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From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is The Daily.
Starlink, the satellite communication company owned by Elon Musk, has quietly and quickly encircled the Earth. Today, my colleague, Adam Satariano on the story of Starlink’s rise, its revolutionary promise, and on the implications of one man controlling it all.
It’s Wednesday, August 9th.
Adam, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
So Adam, tell us where this reporting that you’ve done on Starlink started for you.
Part of it is just geeky curiosity. I learned about this technology, which is essentially satellites orbiting the Earth, which are beaming an internet connection down to just about anywhere on Earth. It just seems like this kind of amazing technology, particularly when you think of all the parts of the Earth that don’t have internet connection. And then you add in the fact that it’s controlled by Elon Musk. We know Elon from Tesla, of course, and now from his ownership of Twitter.
That’s X to.
X, sorry. And his social media antics, and outbursts, and petty fights that he gets into online. But it was fascinating to see that, even more so, he is controlling this new, incredibly important area of communication in satellite internet. And so a group of colleagues and I wanted to understand the scale of this. And we started reporting it out. We found a database managed by a researcher in Hawaii. And what we found is that there are more than 8,000 active satellites spinning around the Earth right now. And more than half of those, more than 4,500, are controlled by Elon Musk and his company.
So one company, I mean, one man, in fact, is responsible for 50 percent of the satellites in space. Elon Musk is like the mayor of space.
Exactly, and the more you learn about it, as you start to see the geopolitical consequences and other important ways in which this technology can be influencing the world.
OK, so I definitely want to go there, Adam. We want to get to the implications of Musk controlling chunks of the world’s internet. But before we do, let’s start at how he came to dominate so much of the sky around the planet. Where does that story start?
This starts more than 20 years ago. And we need to rewind a bit and remember that Elon Musk is not the person that we know now at this period of time.
He was part of a group called the PayPal Mafia, who built up PayPal, the payments company, which eventually sold to eBay for a great deal of money. So that’s the initial source of his wealth.
But he is also fascinated by space, and ideas of being an interplanetary species, and colonizing Mars, all these far-fetched things. And so I spoke to one British engineer named Martin Sweeting who got together with Musk in 2001. And he described getting a message from an acquaintance who said, I have somebody you should meet. He wants to put a greenhouse on Mars.
OK, greenhouse on Mars, OK.
And of course, this ends up being Elon Musk. And they get to talking. And what Sweeting and his company, Surrey Technology, was quite good at is developing these smaller satellites. So instead of these big hulking satellites the size of a bus that get launched far into space, these were much smaller satellites, which are less expensive to develop. And they can sit in this low-Earth orbit, which is closer to the planet. Which makes communication, whether it’s an internet signal now or some sort of observation work for environmental commercial businesses, it makes all that faster.
OK, so Sweeting is developing these smaller satellites that can orbit the Earth at lower altitude. And Musk has this general interest in space. When did the idea for Starlink come into focus?
We don’t know exactly when he hatched this grand plan. But other companies in the 1990s and in the 2000s had tried satellite internet. But almost all of them went bust. And the reason for that, it is incredibly expensive to launch a satellite into space. And to make this work, you need lots of them.
So imagine you right now in New York. There’s satellites whizzing by overhead. And as one goes past you, it hands the signal off to another one that’s trailing not too far behind. They are sending that signal down to Earth to something called a terminal, which is like a giant Wi-Fi hotspot to spread out that internet signal. And so you need these things to be whizzing by you in New York or somebody else in Antarctica to be able to provide that sort of high speed, low latency internet.
So it’s kind of like a relay race, right? Like they’re handing off from one to the next to the next. And if there are too few of them, then they drop the baton and lose the signal.
Yes, so imagine this long gap between satellites. Therefore, the signal would be inconsistent, would not be as strong.
And at this point, what was he aiming for? What was the business strategy?
- archived recording 1
After defying all conventions in the banking industry, the auto industry, and the aerospace industry, Elon Musk now plans to do the same with the connectivity industry.
Elon Musk says the opportunity is massive.
- archived recording (elon musk)
The revenue potential of launching these satellites, servicing the Space Station, and whatnot, that’s — taps out around $3 billion a year. But I think providing broadband is more like an order of magnitude more than that.
If they get something like 3 percent of the overall global internet market, that would be at least $30 billion a year.
- archived recording (elon musk)
The world seems to have an insatiable appetite for bandwidth.
And so the potential is vast. Whether or not they can get there is still an open question.
Got it, OK. So a huge potential market here. But if you’re Musk, to make this work, you need a lot of satellites. And launching them is expensive. So how did he solve this cost problem?
Well, it was never a foregone conclusion that he would. But he had this advantage that he could lean into, which is around the same time he’s talking to Martin Sweeting, Musk founds a company called SpaceX in 2002.
- archived recording (elon musk)
I think we’re at the dawn of a new era. And I think it’s going to be very exciting. What we’re hoping to do with SpaceX is to push the envelope and provide a reason for people to be excited and inspired to be human.
And this was a private space fleet, the idea for one. Essentially, Musk was becoming a private rocketeer.
This is the whole people on Mars thing.
Exactly. But this is a company that almost put him into bankruptcy. And this is around the time when Tesla was also struggling. So this is a period in life when Musk is sort of not assuredly going to be on the sort of billionaire list that he is today. But eventually, by late 2015, early 2016, SpaceX has a major breakthrough.
- archived recording 2
Stage one is level. The Falcon has landed. Landing operators move into procedure 11.1.
And that breakthrough is that their rockets could land back on Earth and be reusable. So most rockets, they go into space. When they come back, essentially disintegrate. But here, they could come back and land, and then eventually be reused.
- archived recording 3
Five or six years ago, people think, there’s no — it’s not possible to land the first stage. And they did it. You guys did it. Awesome.
And so if you are creating a satellite internet company where you need hundreds, thousands of these things put up into orbit, this is a key, key advantage. You essentially have an express train to take up these satellites, sometimes dozens at a time, and then to release them in orbit, and come back down, and then eventually do it again.
So he cracks the code. This is the solution to the cost problem of needing to send so many satellites up into space, right?
He’s able to do it at a scale that’s the envy of others who have long tried to do the same. And in 2019 is when they launched their first 60 or so satellites into orbit. They’ve obviously been moving very, very quickly. Now, they’re up to more than 4,500. And they now have more than 1.5 million customers. And they are available in more than 50 countries and territories. So in a relatively short period of time, they have gone from 0 to 60.
Yet while all of this is going on, you heard much more about Twitter, or X, or whatever it’s called now, and Tesla. Companies like that Starlink really wasn’t on our radar.
Yeah, I mean, for a while, myself included, I kind of considered it as a — kind of a hobby almost of Elon Musk. And perhaps that’s my own ignorance.
But where the real power of this technology, and Musk’s control of it really snapped into focus, and I started paying much closer attention, was the war in Ukraine.
We’ll be right back.
So Adam, tell me about the role Starlink has played in the war in Ukraine.
Starlink has played a massive role in Ukraine. And it happened immediately. So on the first day of the invasion, there is a satellite system that the Ukrainian military had that was taken down through a cyber attack. This was later attributed to Russia.
And so with that taken out, they needed to find an alternative. And they needed to find it fast. And the digital minister there, a young guy named Fedorov, he is a tech guy. He had worked in tech before going into government. And he’s kind of a Musk admirer. Even before the war, he had been trying to get in touch with SpaceX and Starlink to use these services without any success.
And so after the old system that they’re using is taken down, he decides to reach out over social media, which is sort of a preferred form of communication for Musk, as they know. And so they Tweet. They try Instagram. They’re even trying to talk to one another if anybody knows Elon Musk’s mother.
They’re trying to get this message to Musk that they need Starlink for their efforts to fight back against Russia.
So soon after this Twitter post starts to go viral, Musk reaches out to him and says that Starlink has been activated in Ukraine. And that they will help. And soon after, Starlink terminals begin to arrive in Ukraine. And they have an immediate and profound effect.
They’re given to the military and used at the front lines for intelligence gathering, and planning, and eventually, drone strikes. They’re used at hospitals. They are used by the government. They were particularly important during bombardments that were taking down the country’s energy infrastructure. It became, as Federov said to me, essentially the blood of their communication network.
So Adam, I have to tell you, the first time I ever heard about Starlink was in Ukraine. And everybody I talked to, particularly soldiers, adored Elon Musk because of Starlink and because of this internet connection. I mean, we interviewed a soldier in the Azovstal steel plant, I mean, cut off from the world. He didn’t know whether he would survive.
His last phone call to his wife, what he believed to be his last phone call to his wife, was on a Musk connection. And people there knew him by name. He was a household word. And they loved him because he provided this way that people could communicate with their loved ones when they thought they might never talk to them again.
Absolutely, I mean, it’s an incredible technology. And it really is the two sides of Elon Musk. I mean, on the one side, he is this genius innovator. He breaks through conventional thinking. He does things that people don’t think is possible. But on the flip side, he’s also a very combustible figure, unpredictable. And having him in the middle of all this began to raise some concerns.
So what were the concerns it raised? What happened?
It was really last fall, around last September, when some of these problems began to emerge. First was the issue around payment. So this is an expensive technology to operate. And questions began to come forward about who was going to pay for it. Elon Musk tweeted in September that they could no longer continue paying for this.
So Musk says we can’t pay for all of Ukraine’s internet anymore, which I guess, in some ways, makes sense. But why the change then? What was going on?
It was becoming increasingly clear at the time how important Starlink was to the Ukrainian army. And Musk, according to the people we’ve spoken to, was growing concerned about his technology being sort of center to the war fighting. And there was some comments made by a Russian official at one point that Starlink would be a justifiable military target essentially because of the role that it’s playing.
So Musk is kind of getting more than he bargained for here, right? He thought he was helping out with a bit of internet and suddenly becomes a potential military target.
Yes. So when Musk begins making these threats about not being able to continue providing it over payment, it really gets people’s attention. So much so that the Biden administration asks one of the top Pentagon officials, Colin Kahl to step in and mediate.
And so in early October, he gets on the phone with Musk to talk about Starlink access in Ukraine. And Musk tells him that he doesn’t like that Starlink is being used not just for Ukraine to defend itself, but now, it’s also being used for these kind of offensive operations to regain territory in Russia. And that can cause significant military casualties for the Russians. And Musk doesn’t want to be kind of an instrument of war in this sort of way.
Mr. Kahl, he makes the counterargument that more people in Ukraine are going to suffer if Starlink is to pull out. And so although no public announcement was made, the service has largely continued to work in Ukraine. But the payment issue was really just one problem.
So Adam, what else was going wrong?
The other main issue was just where Starlink internet would work. So as Russia and Ukraine battled back and forth over territory in the east, Starlink was constantly having to decide which areas the service should work and where it should not. So the service would not work in areas that were controlled by Russia.
And so as the Ukrainians were pressing forward to try and retake that land, like in the city of Kherson, for instance, they would find that the system, in some cases, would not work. And some people said that even slowed them down. And so when you have these big, fluid situations on the battlefield, Starlink, and where it worked, became central to it.
So in other words, the internet was off in these Russian controlled areas. The Ukrainians desperately needed internet in order to take back these territories, didn’t have it. So really, exactly at its moment of need, Ukraine didn’t have what Starlink could have provided.
Exactly. And you have a situation where Starlink, this private company, becomes a third party in this conflict. And as the Ukrainians press forward, they’re having to communicate back with this American company about where they need the systems to work. So we talked to people who they described communicating back with officials at Starlink, and in some instances, even trying to message with Elon Musk to get the service to work in these different areas. And so it just shows how central Starlink has been to the war in Ukraine.
It’s kind of amazing like Musk, a private American citizen based in Texas, is literally in the middle of Ukrainian war planning, helping draw the battle lines.
It’s really extraordinary. And it really remained a live issue for some time. And eventually, Washington and the Defense Department had to get involved. So a deal that was announced in June gives the Pentagon the ability to set where Starlink service works for several hundred of these terminals.
So what that means is there is this sort of subset of Starlink devices that give the Ukrainians much wider latitude to use the service where they feel they need, kind of taking out Starlink and Elon Musk, their power in setting where it will work.
I mean, Ukraine, as I’m hearing you talk about it, Adam, is a very powerful case study, right, of just how important this technology can be. And what it means if so much of the power of the technology is held in the hands of one man. I mean, it’s a public good. Usually, we think of a public good as something that’s provided by a government. But in this case, it’s a private citizen. And that’s pretty remarkable and also kind of concerning.
Yeah, exactly. Elon Musk did something that perhaps governments should have been doing and could have done, but didn’t. And so then you have a situation in which this commercial technology is providing something that Ukraine could not get anywhere else. And so you’re seeing other countries now seeing the power that it’s had in Ukraine begin to grapple with that.
Right, other countries are looking at Ukraine and wondering whether they would also have to contend with Elon Musk.
Absolutely, and Taiwan is perhaps the best example of that. This is a country that has a looming threat from China, which sees Taiwanese territory as its own. And Taiwan’s internet infrastructure primarily comes from several undersea cables, which connects it to the rest of the world. And so this is very vulnerable to sabotage. And Starlink here would seem to be a perfect backup.
But people there, because of Elon Musk’s connections to China, his deep, deep business ties, are very reluctant to partner with him. We spoke to one member of parliament who’s involved in crafting this policy. And he went as far as to say that it could be a trap.
Well, a potential trap. That’s a pretty strong word. So for that person — for that Taiwanese minister, the Ukraine example was very much a cautionary tale, it sounds like.
Absolutely, and every country sees it differently. China has its own concerns about Starlink. In China, where the internet is heavily censored and regulated, Musk said in an interview last year that officials in Beijing had made him swear that he would not turn on Starlink there, presumably because it would provide some way around censorship controls.
A similar situation in Iran, where Musk had provided a small amount of Starlink access during some anti-government protests. The Iranian government said that Starlink was violating their sovereignty. And so all of these different geopolitical hotspots, you have the issue of internet connectivity and Starlink coming up, which is a pretty extraordinary place to be for this company that, as of five years ago, was just an idea in Elon Musk’s head.
I mean, these countries have a legitimate concern, right? But on the other hand, Musk has a big and growing share of this pretty crucial new market. So will countries just have to live with his mercurialness because he’s the monopolist?
He’s far and away ahead of anyone else right now. But others are coming. Amazon has plans to build a competing service. China is going to be putting thousands of satellites of its own up to provide internet service. The European Union has put aside billions of dollars to do something similar.
But Musk is very far ahead. While they’re all talking about doing this, his rockets continue to go up into space and put more and more satellites. And so at this rate, it’s going to take considerable time, perhaps years, before anybody could even come close to matching what they’ve done.
Right so, in the meantime, the world has got to make peace with the fact that this revolutionary and quite vital technology is owned by this mercurial and quite trolly businessman.
Absolutely. And in this case, it’s literally impossible to separate the invention from the inventor. And so for the time being, Elon Musk, and what he’s built, is all we’ve got. And it will be for the foreseeable future.
Adam, thank you.
Thank you for having me.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you should know today. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court temporarily revived the Biden administration’s regulations of so-called ghost guns, kits that can be bought online and assembled into untraceable homemade firearms. The 2022 regulation required sellers to obtain licenses, mark their products with serial numbers, and conduct background checks. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberal members in a 5 to 4 vote that will mean the regulation will remain in place while a challenge moves forward in the courts.
And voters in Ohio rejected a bid by conservatives to make it harder to amend the state Constitution, a significant victory for abortion rights supporters, who were trying to stop the Republican-controlled legislature from sharply restricting the procedure. The vote drew an uncharacteristically high number of voters for a sleepy summer election in an off year and was seen as a potential barometer of the political climate going into 2024. Initial results show the measure losing by a roughly 3 to 2 margin.
Today’s episode was produced by Luke Vander Ploeg and Asthaa Chaturvedi with help from Jessica Cheung. It was edited by Michael Benoist with help from Paige Cowett and John Ketchum. Contains original music by Dan Powell, Elisheba Ittoop Marion Lozano, and Diane Wong. And was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.