This was the plan: create a network of satellites to connect all of humanity in a way we’ve never seen before. Even in some of the poorest, most desolate, out-of-the-way places, if you’ve got a satellite phone, you’re okay. Fantastic!
I say it again: Fantastic (definition: highly unrealistic or impractical).
This isn’t Starlink I’m talking about, though it shares the same drawbacks as a much older effort. The Iridium satellite constellation project began in the early ’90s. Backed by Motorola, Iridium aimed to provide satellite phone service anywhere on Earth.
Why have you probably never heard of Iridium? You are using a cell phone, not a satellite phone. Also, you probably have no need to call while somewhere past the middle of nowhere.
A satellite phone costs $1,300. A monthly subscription starts around $50/month for 15 minutes of talking. It wasn’t cost-effective decades ago. It’s still not cost-effective.
Nonetheless, big tech companies have been trying to offer very remote Internet access for many years. Facebook Aquila tried to do it using solar power drones. Google had its own version, with Project Loon, with high-altitude balloons. Facebook gave up in 2018. Google surrendered to reality in 2021. These companies, with their armies of top engineers and vast resources, couldn’t make it work.
Fast forward to 2021. 5G technology already covered 1 billion people (15% of the global population) by 2020. The ‘older’ 4G covers about 80% now. With all of the coverage we’ve got from existing towers, cables, and undersea connections, there’s only about 5 percent of the world that remains outside of a cheap and easy Internet access zone. Even in many remote areas, there are often still landlines.
Still, Elon Musk was making headlines with Starlink this week. Their big announcement: they’ve hit 70,000 active users — and are projected to hit 500,000 users within 12 months. That might sound like a lot… but it’s not. It’s a small market. They will need many more users to make a profit.
Starlink connects places that until now had little-to-no access to the Internet. However, if you’re wealthy enough to afford a satellite phone, you’re probably already living in the big city. You’ve got good access to the Internet. Or if you’re a remote worker at a mine or military installation, you’ve got infrastructure already. So, who is this really for?
But that’s not the worst part. Plenty of businesspeople at all levels make bad calculations of risk vs. reward, or the size of their market vs. the actual number of eventual customers. All kinds of companies do this and it’s more forgivable.
Here’s what is not forgivable. We all know Elon Musk is the man who has a vision of taking humanity to the stars (or at least Mars) with SpaceX. But the Starlink project could ultimately make space travel impossible — and even put an end to astronomy!
Starlink has already deployed 1,500 satellites and Musk has plans to launch up to 42,000 in all. NASA is already very worried about space junk. A chain reaction of collisions gets more likely every year. At the very least, that would put any spacecraft in danger as it leaves Earth — and worse, potentially end modern life on Earth. Let’s say we have a run of amazing good luck…
Starlink is a project that is destined to provide very little benefit for anyone, lose a lot of money, and end our ability to search or travel to the stars. This isn’t just bad business for Elon Musk. It could be really bad for all of us.
Elon Musk wants to create a better environment on Earth with his electric cars. However, he’s creating a junkyard just above us and he’s not the first one. Many companies claim to be doing things that will help the environment.
By not looking more deeply at the consequences of our innovation, we are going to hurt ourselves, again. That’s the recurrent pattern.