It is common knowledge that Elon Musk has his hand in several businesses and ideas. The billionaire already grew his auto manufacturing company, Tesla, into an $800 billion firm - a move that landed him the top spot on the Forbes Billionaire Index earlier this month. While he eventually fell to #2 again, Musk is cashing out on his ability to revamp Tesla.
With Tesla on its own doing pretty well, Musk has focused a more significant amount of energy over the past 18 months on his other pet project, SpaceX. The space exploration company is breaking ground with its human-crewed missions. Last year, it made history by completing its first launch of humans into space. Since then, it hasn't looked back.
Working on the Internet for Now
For SpaceX, the end goal has always been taking humans to space and possibly to help in the eventual colonization of Mars. However, while no one doubts the crazy genius that is Elon Musk, many believe that this dream is still years away at the very least. For now, the company is focusing on Starlink - a broadband internet project that could very well change the internet landscape.
Musk first made public statements about Starlink in 2015. At the time, the billionaire explained that he believed a constellation of spacecraft in the lower part of the Earth's orbit would improve internet connectivity and speed, reducing lag much more than the conventional geosynchronous satellite internet providers.
Since then, SpaceX has made significant progress with the Starlink project. The company received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch about 12,000 desk-size satellites in space - a mission that should carry on till at least the middle of 2027. SpaceX has since changed its objective, claiming in 2019 that it plans to launch as many as 42,000 satellites.
According to reports, the company even sought approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to fly an additional 30,000 satellites into space.
Time to Get to Work
Starlink is SpaceX's mission to change the internet and broadband industry for the better. The company is hoping to bite off a chunk of the global telecoms industry as well, with designs on about three to five percent of the trillion-dollar space shortly. Still, Musk is focused on the end goal - space travel and colonizing lands beyond the Earth's frontier.
Speaking in a teleconference call in May 2019, Musk told reporters:
"We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop more advanced rockets and spaceships. We think this is a key stepping stone on the way towards establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon."
SpaceX began a public beta test program for the Starlink project last year, spanning Canada and the United States. The company chose areas that didn't have access to high-speed internet, essentially watching out for the Starlink satellites' efficiency.
Beta Draws Impressive Reviews
Last May, reports confirmed that the program was primarily a success. The company itself sent an email to beta testers, confirming that it made several upgrades, including adding a "Snow Melt Mode" for satellite dishes to prevent them from the elements.
The beta, titled "Better Than Nothing," got impressive reviews from users, many of whom claimed that the satellites worked even in extreme weather conditions. In some cases, it appeared to even be faster in severe weather.
SpaceX had told users that they would get as much as 150Mbps in download speeds when it first announced the beta tests. However, the reviews on Reddit showed that the satellites provided up to 175Mbps, beating Tesla's estimates. The users, who were on confidentiality agreements with SpaceX, confirmed that they enjoyed working on their Starink satellites and felt more confident about its future going forward.
Despite the impressive first reviews, analysts are still worried about whether these Starlink satellites will be profitable for SpaceX. The company has continued to launch more satellites, but there are questions about failure rates, costs, and the possible environmental impacts.
It seems probable that SpaceX will be able to do enough to keep the Starlink project afloat. For one, the company still has quite a long way to go before it begins any proper, full-scale crewed missions. So, it will need to focus on projects that it can still handle. Starlink is one such project.
As for the profitability questions, it goes without saying that analysts will need to wait and see. The internet industry is worth billions, and Starlink appears to be focusing on areas of the world that still don't have access to world-class broadband coverage. Considering that the industry itself still has a lot of potential to consider, there's no telling how much Starlink and SpaceX could benefit from this mission.