Washington Post: “Elon Musk’s control over satellite internet demands a reckoning”

In an Opinion piece published on 2023-08-30 and signed by “the Editorial Board”, the Washington Post opined, “Elon Musk’s control over satellite internet demands a reckoning”.

When Elon Musk reportedly spoke of a “great conversation” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, minutes after declaring he could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of activity on the small satellite constellation he owns, a senior defense official had the following reaction: “Oh dear, this is not good.”

The statement, featured in a recent New Yorker article, aptly captures the situation in which the United States government finds itself. A single man exerts considerable control over the satellite internet industry that operates in “low Earth orbit” — generally about 300 miles above Earth — even as that industry is crucial to the war effort in Ukraine. Worse still, that man is the erratic Mr. Musk. There are just shy of 8,000 satellites in the skies today; more than 4,500 of those are Starlink satellites, launched by SpaceX. The company hopes to multiply this number almost tenfold in the coming years.

Starlink is far from the first constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit and far from the first to sell to militaries. But what distinguishes the network is the amount of data it can move, as well as how quickly it can increase that capacity: SpaceX can launch satellites unprecedentedly fast and at unprecedentedly low cost thanks to the reusable rockets it has pioneered. The bigger the satellite fleet, the more versatile and effective: As a satellite flies above a terminal located on the ground, it transfers the signal to a satellite behind it, and so on, forming a chain that ensures users maintain constant access to the internet.

Using a technique known as geofencing, Mr. Musk has restricted his satellites’ availability on the front lines. Purportedly, he’s wary of aiding an offensive rather than merely a defensive war, which isn’t surprising given his proposal for a “peace plan” whose defining feature was its generosity toward Russia. Sometimes, when Ukraine has wanted to retake Russian-occupied cities, its government has had to message SpaceX employees or the CEO himself for permission. Ukraine’s request at one point to send a drone into ships docked in the Black Sea near Crimea was reportedly rebuffed.

Mr. Musk is the wrong person to be making these calls. The Defense Department announced a deal with SpaceX in June. (Ukraine had been getting Starlink capacity for free until the richest man in the world, not unreasonably, changed his mind.) The details aren’t public, but reporting suggests that the Pentagon will determine when and where the 400 to 500 new devices it is purchasing will work — within Ukraine’s territory, at least. The short-term solution to the Starlink conundrum is for the United States to continue this kind of negotiation, allowing itself more autonomy to assist Ukraine in carrying out crucial missions.

What’s to be done? While a president theoretically has the legal option of nationalizing Starlink in a worst-case scenario, as Woodrow Wilson did with the country’s railroads during World War I, that would be neither politically popular nor prudent. A better solution might be for the United States to try to build satellites of its own. The $1.5 billion contract the Pentagon awarded last week to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to create a low-orbit satellite constellation is the start of such a strategy.

The plan aims for only 72 satellites, roughly 1 percent of the number SpaceX has put into the sky. All the United States has to do, however, is muster a fleet large enough to enable smaller-scale but essential operations, so Starlink is no longer the democratic world’s only good option. This might not happen quickly, given the slowness and scleroticism for which the giants of the realm of military contracting are known. Encouraging Silicon Valley hotshots and others in private industry to inject some competition might help. The upside could be less waste and more innovation — exactly as SpaceX and Starlink have demonstrated. The downside is just as obvious.

Never mentioned in the article is that Jeff Bezos, sole owner of the Washington Post (through his holding company, Nash Holdings LLC), is founder of Kuiper Systems, a subsidiary of Amazon, which has received a license to deploy a low-Earth orbit constellation of 3,236 satellites which will directly compete with SpaceX’s Starlink if it ever manages to get its satellites into orbit.

“Elon, you emigrated to the wrong country.“™


They’re laying it on too thick with this article. The editorial board is misinformed or not serious. Or both.

On a serious note, not only did SpaceX ramp from 60 satellites in May 2019 to, as of this week, 5,000 satellites launched, with nearly 4,000 operational, but they also scaled up their service to over 1.5M subscribers.

We really should be celebrating the engineering accomplishment of a company that developed practically the entire end-to-end system, from the satellites, to the launchers, to the network terminals, protocols, design, and operations. This is not happening every day.

It also does not mention that SpaceX is already working on Starshield, which they launched December 2022, targeting government specific operations. They already have (source) 7 ioperational satellites (out of 10 launched to date)

Not to bring up the arbitrary unilateral decision by the FCC last year to deprive SpaceX of the nearly $1B subsidy they won at auction in December 2020 as part of the Rural Development Opportunity Fund. Between 2020 and today, SpaceX put in orbit over 3000 satellites at no cost to the taxpayer providing useful coverage and high speed service in rural parts of the country that would break any fiber optics deployment business case.

Floating trial balloons of nationalizing Starlink along with proposals to fund the usual suspects to the tune of $1.5B for perhaps possibly at some point in time 72 (!) satellites is just laughable.

On a separate note, Project Kuiper has been struggling.

Amazon plans to launch the first two protype satellites “KuiperSat-1” and “KuiperSat-2” on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as soon as September 26, 2023.[7]

Previously, Amazon had planned its initial ride to space on launch vehicles that were also still in development, including ABL Space Systems on their RS1 rocket that was expected by late 2022[6][24] as well as on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket by mid-2023.[25] Both rockets in development experienced their own testing failures that delayed their launch readiness. By August 2023 Amazon selected the flight proven Atlas V rocket to reach orbit in a more timely fashion. The test two satellites likely weighing a few hundred kilograms are the sole expected payload on the Altas V rocket that is capable of deploying 8 metric tons into low-Earth orbit.[7]

It would be great to have competition for SpaceX. Whether Boeing or Lockheed or any new entrants. But Kuiper has been the next great thing coming up in the next three years for the last four years.


When you spend a trillion a year on “defense” and have an enormous list of gaps that as far as I could tell didn’t include low earth orbit satellites, “Oh dear, this is not good” is an understatement, but not for the reasons this senior official zipper head thinks. Oh dear oh dear, how poorly is the defense department being managed? Forget waste or over priced components. The big waste is complete failure to complete your responsibility and Elon just demonstrated that it is not due to lack of funding.

Awhile back I watched an Uncommon Knowledge interview with a typical warmonger that claimed the prediction by the intelligence community of a Russian invasion was one of its most impressive accomplishments. Well, I don’t disagree it was some of the best work of our intelligence community which has a history of egregious failure. I don’t think it is very impressive. I watch a Youtube channel by an individual that also predicted the invasion based on his identification of movements of Russian forces on the border. Oh dear. My oh my. Impressive intelligence agencies indeed. How many billion could we save by contracting out the intelligence to Youtubers with 10,000 subscribers? I guess what the intelligence community brought to the table was the knowledge that the US and the UK were successful in thwarting talks to avoid war. Tough work when your main effort is diddling with the NYT, Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter and Google.


I don’t think that the Post’s editors were acting under secret orders from Mr. Bezos, but the article should’ve included a standard disclaimer about their owner.


Meanwhile, SpaceX helps another competitor:

This may assist the shareholder lawsuit against Amazon in that it evidences SpaceX’s availability.