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Credit where it’s due: Elon Musk and SpaceX delivered for Ukraine when it needed them

June 1, 2022, 4:46 PM UTC

That Elon Musk is one aggravating fella.

He’s an arrogant, crass, rule-breaking renegade, constantly thumbing his nose at pesky regulators and common decency. You want to dislike him, if only because he makes it so easy.

Then you read a story like the one published Tuesday by Fortune’s Vivienne Walt, who bravely traversed war-torn Ukraine to document the impact of satellite internet service provided by Musk’s SpaceX.

As Walt writes, Ukrainians have about 11,000 Starlink internet terminals, giving them immediate web access after Russian aggressors virtually wiped out the nation’s online infrastructure. The technology has allowed Ukrainian soldiers to coordinate their inspiring military resistance, while also allowing civilians to maintain the faintest semblance of basic services.

“Mobile and light, the Starlink terminals have been carried by soldiers and civilians from one battle zone to another, and between bomb-blasted towns, across a territory the size of Texas,” Walt writes. “They’re not only benefiting combat forces, but also allowing doctors to resume treating patients, helping officials administer services, and enabling those who stayed to call loved ones who have fled the country.

The hardware and service arrived in Ukraine through the most modern manner: a Ukrainian government official hit up Musk on Twitter, asking him for Starlink stations. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO, known for making big, empty promises in times of crisis, promised to send help.

This time, Musk and his team came through, immediately ferrying thousands of terminals into the country and offering free internet service to users (U.S. and European Union aid programs have helped cover costs, too, per Walt).

The benefits in wartime are immense. But the success of Starlink in Ukraine also demonstrates the incredible commercial potential for low-orbit satellites, validating the push into the market by SpaceX, Amazon, and a few lesser-known companies like ViaSat, Hughes Net, and OneWeb. If Starlink can assist a bombed-out nation, it surely can bring the internet to developing countries, rural areas, and roving travelers. 

SpaceX believes as much. In the past week, the company received regulatory approval to launch its service in Nigeria, Mozambique, and the Philippines, per Musk. It’s partnering with the Brazilian government on a program in the Amazon rainforest, helping connect remote schools and assist environmental preservation efforts. It already markets satellite internet service to RV owners—albeit at a higher cost, with a warning not to use them while in motion.

Starlink remains a relatively modest service, with about 400,000 global customers, according to CNBC. Widespread adoption of satellite internet remains far off, with numerous hurdles to clear.

To start, it’s wickedly expensive for your average global citizen, with basic service costing $599 upfront and $110 per month. 

The logistical challenge of operating thousands of low-orbit satellites remains an issue. As SpaceX aspires to operate about 30,000 satellites and Amazon races to launch a constellation of 3,200 units, scientists worry about dangerous collisions in space.

America’s geopolitical foes also might look to intervene, a possibility raised last month by Chinese researchers advocating for the development of systems that can destroy Starlink satellites. (Maybe the Space Force isn’t so loony after all?)

For now, though, SpaceX’s service to Ukraine offers a high-profile proof of concept. The product will get cheaper and better as the technology evolves—Musk said last week that SpaceX already has built more-powerful Starlink 2.0 satellites—but at least the market knows it’s worth pursuing.

Chalk it up as another victory for Elon. Now if only he’d lay off the juvenile 420 and anatomical jokes.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Blocked for now. A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a new Texas law designed to limit censorship by social media companies should not go into effect while a lawsuit challenging the statute is litigated. In a 5-4 vote, the justices sided with social media companies that argued the First Amendment’s free speech provisions protect their right to remove content. Texas Republicans passed the law in response to claims that leading social media companies routinely censored conservatives on their platforms.

Still a major force. Salesforce shares surged 9% in mid-day trading Wednesday after the cloud-computing company posted strong first-quarter performance and raised its outlook for the rest of the year, CNBC reported. Salesforce’s quarterly earnings and revenue nudged slightly ahead of analyst predictions, with sales up 24% year-over-year. CEO Marc Benioff said his company hasn’t suffered the ill effects of broader economic forces weighing on many other tech companies.

No glitch here. HP powered through supply chain issues and a pullout from Russia to top analyst projections for the company’s first-quarter results, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. Robust commercial computer sales helped HP maintain profits of about $1 billion, down from $1.2 billion in the first quarter of last year but ahead of Wall Street forecasts. HP shares rose 3% in mid-day trading Wednesday.

A half-billion boost. Binance’s venture capital arm raised $500 million to invest in blockchain and Web3 outfits, offering another example of investor confidence in the nascent technology spaces, CoinDesk reported Wednesday. The cryptocurrency exchange’s CEO, Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, said the fund will invest in decentralized finance, non-fungible token, gaming, and metaverse startups, among others. The announcement comes one week after Andreessen Horowitz set up a $4.5 billion crypto fund, bucking a recent decline in token values.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I spy some turmoil. Politicians, journalists, and human rights advocates will feel a buzz of schadenfreude at this story. The Financial Times reported Wednesday that Israel’s controversial spyware company NSO Group is teetering on the brink, beset by internal strife and economic fallout from sanctions tied to its oft-abused hacking tools. As the U.S. blocks companies from dealing with NSO Group, a product of the company selling to nefarious buyers, top executives debated late last year whether to get back into bed with autocratic regimes as cash reserves dwindled. A firm representing major investors blocked the move, exposing deep tensions within the company.

From the article:

This account of the NSO Group’s struggles is based on interviews with nearly a dozen people from New York to Tel Aviv including company insiders, investors, creditors, government officials and a review of court filings and correspondence.

They reveal a company gripped by crisis, its owners pitted against each other in legal battles and its future requiring delicate diplomacy between the United States and Israel, which has used the lure of NSO’s technology to prise open relationships with customers, especially Gulf and Arab nations, whose abuse of the weapon now overshadows NSO’s reputation.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Ford and GM are going all in on electric cars, and thousands of jobs hang in the balance, Jaclyn Trop

How to know if you’re rich in crypto? You hold it, you don’t spend it, by Sophie Mellor

‘Pretend to work somewhere else’: Elon Musk’s leaked email ends remote work privileges for Tesla staff, by Christiaan Hetzner

Binance’s CEO speaks out on Terra’s rebrand after its epic stablecoin collapse. ‘I have never spoken to Do Kwon directly’, by Taylor Locke

Levi’s A.I. bootcamp is helping designers create denim of the future, by Stephanie Cain

Voting software in some states is vulnerable to hacking, U.S. cyber agency says, by Kate Brumback and The Associated Press

Web3’s version of AWS just raised $66 million in funding led by SoftBank and GGV, by Brandy Betz and CoinDesk

BEFORE YOU GO

Get your popcorn ready. For the first 10 minutes of Top Gun: Maverick, you’re led to believe the pre-summer blockbuster might bloom into a stinging commentary on the limits of new technology that powers America’s drone-happy armed forces. But who cares about that. Instead, the next two hours are all about Tom Cruise reaching an apex of middle-age charm, Miles Teller improbably pulling off an ‘80s mustache, and Jennifer Connelly smoldering in the San Diego sun. It’s all mindless, patently absurd, and way more entertaining that it has any right to be. So take two hours, turn your brain off, and enjoy. The military-industrial complex will still be there for you to debate when it’s over.

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