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Starlink isn’t a charity, but the war in Ukraine isn’t a business opportunity • TechCrunch

What seemed earlier this year to be an altruistic act of technotopism, the widespread deployment of Starlink endpoints in Ukraine, has soured as SpaceX and governments disagree on who should ultimately foot the bill for this campaign of unprecedented help. Some expect Elon Musk – one of the world’s richest men – to spit, while others say the world’s richest military should too. Elon Musk now says Starlink will continue to provide internet to Ukraine for free Elon Musk now says Starlink will continue to provide internet to Ukraine because free claims have merit, but this game of financial chicken will cost Ukrainian lives.

Update: Musk tweeted that Starlink “will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free” at least for now, although it’s a loss. This secures the service for now but is clearly not a long term solution:

The effort began in late February, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Musk said Starlink terminals were “on the way” but provided few details. Many have taken this minimal, rather promotional approach to mean what it clearly implies: that SpaceX provides the terminals itself, either for free or with some understanding as to their purchase.

The latter case turned out to be the case when it emerged that the US Agency for International Development had paid for some, Polish and other European governments for more, and various armies and NGOs contributing to the cost of transportation, installation and, apparently, the monthly fee payment for the service itself. USAID described “a range of stakeholders” providing a first wave of support totaling about $15 million at the time.

But costs were not a one-time thing. Musk recently tweeted that 25,000 terminals have been deployed in Ukraine, 5 times the initial shipment – ​​thousands destroyed in the fighting, and more are needed. Connectivity costs $4,500 per month, supposedly, for the highest level of service. Based on estimates rated by CNNwhich represents approximately $75 million per month in ongoing costs.

Some have understandably questioned the wisdom of relying on this new, untested technology on a battlefield, but reports from the country’s military suggest it has been very useful. The thing is, the ability was accepted in the spirit in which it was offered and used to its full capacity, but the length and scale of the war caused the situation around Starlink to evolve beyond its reach. of origin.

It’s true that SpaceX cannot be held entirely responsible for tens of millions of dollars in costs, free services, or lost revenue (however money is defined). But there’s no point in playing the victim either: they went there with their eyes open with the intention of providing an expensive and essential service in a war-torn country, apparently with no real plan to cover the costs. .

On the other hand, governments have entered into this field as well. They can’t expect SpaceX to cover the cost of hardware and software alone, or if they did, they should have gotten it in writing. But having financed part of it, does that mean that they are responsible for all that?

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has come to rely on the service and is right to say that no matter what, anyone who has to write an IOU, the terminals must stay – or the soldiers defending their country will be put in direct and immediate danger.

This 3-Way Dead End Has No Easy Fix, So Let’s Start With What We Know Needs happen: Starlink connectivity must continue in Ukraine at nominal cost to them, not forever but indefinitely. Any other outcome is too disastrous for everyone involved.

Internet remains on. Who pays for this? If SpaceX wants anyone to take their request seriously, they need to play ball, which means transparency about the actual costs and payments involved. It goes without saying that Musk needs to stop his vexatious and narcissistic antics – there’s too much at stake for him to indulge in his usual selfishness.

Taxpayers in a dozen countries have already paid for it and will likely continue to do so for months, if not years. What are the actual costs involved? $4,500 per terminal for access seems excessive, on the one hand – that’s the retail rate for early adopters, not a wholesale rate for government partners in a rescue operation. The Pentagon may not be a paragon of thrift, but charging full price in this situation is inappropriate. (Not to mention, this is probably the best PR the company could get as it tries to drive demand for its true consumer service. Money can’t buy that kind of exposure.)

Governments also need to pick a number and be firm about what can and cannot be provided under the aid package. Ukrainian officials would no doubt like every available Starlink terminal to be shipped the next day to the country, but that is not possible, nor is it possible for other forms of assistance that would be helpful, for example some assets too expensive or difficult military. save.

The cost of supporting Ukrainian defense is high, and the United States is spending billions on this cause. How much of that money will go to Starlink connectivity? Choose a number and start trading. Is it $10 million a month? $20 million? What do these costs depend on, how will they be monitored?

SpaceX can take that sum and provide an agreed-upon level of service and hardware. While everyone appreciates the quick movement on this in February, a few hasty phone calls and “we can do this” conversations aren’t a long-term plan to cover the cost of a deployment that has reached hundreds of dollars. millions of dollars and many Ukrainian lives.

Like any compromise, it will leave everyone a little unhappy – but it won’t leave anyone out of touch, cheated or dead. This complicated and delicate situation is the result of inadequate preparation and communication by an ever-changing group of stakeholders. What is expected of SpaceX and its government partners is not finger pointing, but transparency and engagement.