WASHINGTON – SpaceX now has a quarter of a million subscribers for its Starlink satellite broadband service as it looks to enter new markets like aviation.
Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of commercial sales for Starlink at SpaceX, said during a panel at the Satellite 2022 conference on March 22 that while Starlink is best known for its consumer broadband service, it was also working to provide services to companies and other sectors.
“We currently have 250,000 subscribers, and that’s across consumers, businesses and a lot of businesses,” he said. SpaceX is manufacturing “about eight satellites a day” at its facility in Redmond, Washington, as the company builds its constellation.
Beyond consumer broadband, he cited demand for Starlink from other markets, such as cellular backhaul and services for schools. “There are a number of different people coming out of the woodwork who need connectivity,” she said.
One of those emerging markets for Starlink is aviation. “Connectivity on planes is something that we think is ripe for review,” Hofeller said. “The expectation has changed faster than the technology has changed.”
SpaceX has developed an aviation antenna that is currently being tested, he said, and is working to certify it on “several aircraft.” He did not give an anticipated timeline for completing that, but said the company planned to offer a service for commercial airliners that would be indistinguishable from conventional Internet access. “We are designing a service where all the passengers on that plane can stream simultaneously.”
Hofeller, when asked how many subscribers the company needs to make Starlink profitable, declined to give a number. However, he said the system’s profitability would improve with a second generation of satellites, something company founder Elon Musk had previously suggested.
“I think we have a successful architecture,” he said. “Version one is sustainable, but from the point of view of the profits we want to make, version two will be much more profitable.”
Pandemic and Ukraine
Hofeller and other panelists said they have seen a sharp increase in demand for satellite broadband services brought on by the pandemic.
“We found out how many people in our market relied on broadband at work or school and suddenly couldn’t,” said Evan Dixon, president of global fixed broadband for Viasat. “It led us to double down on the idea that people want more bandwidth.”
Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, OneWeb’s senior regulatory and space policy adviser, said she believed the financial community became sold on the satellite broadband market when, at the start of the pandemic two years ago, executives relocated from New York and London. to rural areas. areas, only to find spotty connectivity. “It really showed the money people that this was a need, a real need, for everybody in the world.”
Financiers, he added, were also won over by Amazon’s relatively late entry into the satellite broadband business, a move made by former CEO Jeff Bezos with his Project Kuiper system. “If he thinks he can be last and beat all these competitors and be a viable competitor, this is a real deal. This is not just a niche,” he said.
While governments are investing more in expanding broadband services, Hofeller criticized some approaches that financed infrastructure over results, he argued. “We support architectures where they have designed the funding to support the end user. The end user needs affordable internet,” she said.
Satellite, he added, can provide much faster broadband service than building fiber. “We had people call us on a Friday and their school would come online on Monday,” he said. “That kind of instant gratification is not something that governments know how to react to.”
Starlink also gained attention for providing services in Ukraine in response to a request from a government minister after Russia’s invasion of the country. Hofeller did not discuss the company’s work in Ukraine, but Dixon appeared to criticize the publicity SpaceX generated for its work there.
“However, the important thing for us is not what we are doing in Ukraine. We are doing a lot in Ukraine, but it is not something that we advertise and we are not going to do. We are certainly not going to advertise a war,” Dixon said. However, he did talk about Viasat’s work to bring connectivity to Ukrainian refugees in Slovakia.
Satellites can help refugees from war zones or natural disasters, Pritchard-Kelly said. “I think that various government entities are approaching everyone to see what can be done, both in Ukraine and in the surrounding area,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s significantly different from other emergencies.”