What appeared earlier this year as a selfless act of technotopism, the widespread deployment of Starlink terminals in Ukraine has deteriorated as SpaceX and governments disagree over who should ultimately foot the bill for this unprecedented relief campaign. Some expect Elon Musk – one of the world’s richest men – to cough, while others say the world’s richest military should do the same. Both Elon Musk now says Starlink will continue to provide free internet to Ukraine.
To update: Musk tweeted that Starlink “will continue to fund the government of Ukraine for free,” at least for now, although it’s a loss. This secures the service for the present, but is clearly not a long-term solution:
The effort began in late February, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Musk said Starlink terminals are “on the way,” but provided few details. Many took this minimal, more promotional approach for what it clearly implies: that SpaceX made the terminals available itself, either for free or with some understanding of their purchase.
The latter proved to be the case, as it turned out that the US agency for international development had paid for some that Polish and other European governments contributed to the costs of transport, installation and apparently monthly costs for more and various militaries and NGOs Fees for the service itself. USAID described “a number of stakeholders” who provided an initial wave of support totaling around $15 million at the time.
But the expense was not a one-time thing. Musk recently tweeted that 25,000 terminals have been deployed in Ukraine, five times the original supply – thousands have been destroyed in the fighting and more are needed. Connectivity reportedly costs $4,500 per month for the top tier of service. According to CNN estimates, the running costs add up to around 75 million US dollars per month.
Some understandably questioned the wisdom of relying on this new and unproven technology on a battlefield, but reports from the country’s military suggest it was very helpful. The fact is that the ability was accepted and used to the maximum in the spirit offered, but the length and scale of the war caused the situation around Starlink to develop beyond its original scope.
It’s true that SpaceX cannot be held entirely responsible for tens of millions of dollars in costs, free service, or lost revenue (however the money should be defined). But it’s no good playing the victim either: you went ahead with open-eyed intentions of providing an expensive and vital service in a war-torn country, with seemingly no real plan to cover the costs.
On the other hand, the governments also responded. They couldn’t possibly have expected SpaceX to cover the cost of the hardware and software alone, or if they did, they should have gotten it in writing. But after they’ve funded some of it, does that mean they’re on the hook for everything?
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military relies on the service, and rightly says that whatever happens, whoever has to write whoever a promissory note to whomever, the terminals must remain on — or soldiers defending their country will be in direct and brought immediate danger.
This 3-way distance doesn’t have an easy fix, so let’s start with what we know needs happen: Starlink connectivity must continue in Ukraine at a nominal cost to them, not forever, but indefinitely. Any other outcome is too catastrophic for everyone involved.
So the internet stays on. Who pays for this? If SpaceX wants someone to take their request seriously, it has to play along, and that means transparency about actual costs and payments. It goes without saying that Musk needs to put a stop to his annoying, narcissistic antics — the stakes are too high for him to indulge his usual selfishness.
Taxpayers in a dozen countries have already paid for it, and in all likelihood will do so for months, if not years. What is the actual cost? For one thing, $4,500 per terminal for access seems excessive — that’s a retail price for early adopters, not a bulk price for government partners in a life-saving operation. The Pentagon may not be a paragon of frugality, but charging full price in this situation is unseemly. (Not to mention, this is probably the best possible PR the company could get while trying to drive demand for its genuine consumer service. Money can’t buy that kind of exposure.)
Governments must also pick a number and record what can and cannot be provided as part of the aid package. Ukrainian officials would undoubtedly love to have every available Starlink terminal shipped to the country the next day, but that is not possible, just as other helpful forms of assistance are not possible, for example certain military assets that are too costly or difficult are left.
The cost of supporting Ukraine’s defenses is high, and the US spends billions on the cause. How much of that money will be earmarked for Starlink connectivity? Dial a number and start negotiating. Is it $10 million a month? 20 million dollars? What does this cost depend on, how is it tracked?
SpaceX can take that sum and provide an agreed level of service and hardware. As much as everyone appreciates February’s rapid development, a few hasty phone calls and “we can do this” talk does not constitute a long-term plan to cover the costs of an operation that has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars and numerous Ukrainian lives.
Like any compromise, it will make everyone a little miserable – but it won’t leave anyone separated, lured, or dead. This complicated and uncomfortable situation is the result of inadequate preparation and communication by an ever-changing set of stakeholders. What is needed from SpaceX and its government partners is not pointing the finger, but transparency and engagement.