SpaceX says it needs US government help funding Starlink satellite internet in Ukraine

The company claims it can't keep paying for service as-is.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

SpaceX's donations of Starlink satellite service to Ukraine might not last much longer. CNN says it obtained documents indicating that SpaceX sent a letter to the Defense Department in September claiming the company is "not in a position" to fund Starlink internet in Ukraine as it has without tens of millions of dollars in monthly funding. The company estimated that data access for the Ukranian government and military might cost $124 million for the rest of 2022 and almost $380 million per year, and asked the Pentagon to take over that financing.

Elon Musk elaborated on the reasoning in a tweet on Friday. SpaceX couldn't afford to fund the current infrastructure "indefinitely" while simultaneously delivering more Starlink terminals and managing data use "100X greater" than typical homes, Musk claimed. The satellite technology has not only been used to coordinate Ukranian military campaigns, but can be used to provide data to cell towers and other civilian networks that serve many people. The executive added that the "burn" was close to $20 million per month and included the cost of defending against Russian "cyberattacks & jamming."

The documents apparently contradict one of Musk's earlier claims, however. Where he said last week that only a "small percentage" of Starlink terminals and service received external funding, the letter suggests about 85 percent of the 20,000 Ukraine systems at the time (now 25,000) were at least partly funded by the US, Poland and others. A leak in April indicated that the US had already spent millions to get Starlink hardware to Ukraine. Even so, resources may have been tight. Ukranian commander General Valerii Zaluzhniy directly asked Musk to provide close to 8,000 additional terminals in July, but SpaceX answered by pointing the military leader to the Defense Department.

Word of the letter comes at a bad moment for Musk. He recently drew flak from Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and diplomat Andrij Melnyk for proposing a peace deal that included conceding the illegally annexed Crimea region to Russia. Musk even half-joked his firm was "just following [Melnyk's] recommendation" to "fuck off" following the proposal. We'd add that Musk's net worth of roughly $220 billion is more than Ukraine's 2021 GDP — there have been numerous calls for the entrepreneur to personally fund Starlink service. There are doubts SpaceX is fully committed to supporting Ukraine's fight against Russia, and the funding request doesn't help matters.