SpaceX says its Starlink satellite internet service has surpassed one million active subscribers just two years after its first limited beta release.
SpaceX began launching operational Starlink satellites in November 2019. A little over three years later, the company has successfully launched more than 3600 Starlink satellites, of which some 3000 are operational and ready to serve customers. That network expansion – unprecedented in the history of spaceflight and producing a satellite constellation a magnitude larger than the next largest – has also allowed SpaceX to significantly increase the number of active users it can serve.
In June 2022, CEO Elon Musk reported in an all-hands meeting that SpaceX’s Starlink internet had “nearly” 500,000 users. Just six months later, SpaceX says that figure has doubled to “more than 1,000,000 active subscribers,” indicating an average of roughly 2600 new subscribers per day throughout the second half of 2022. In the relatively tiny world of satellite broadband internet service, a million subscribers makes SpaceX directly comparable to companies that have been serving satellite internet for decades just two years after its first offering entered beta.
In the US, Hughes Network is SpaceX’s largest competitor and currently has a bit less than 1.3 million subscribers in the Americas. Cloudflare data suggests that only half of Starlink’s far more international customer base is located in the United States, indicating that SpaceX has secured almost 40% as many subscribers after offering its competing service for just two years. That growth – roughly 250,000 new subscribers per quarter since March 2022 – is the exact opposite of what virtually every other satellite internet provider has been experiencing for the last several years, most of which are slowly losing subscribers instead of gaining them.
Comments from CEO Elon Musk and actions made by SpaceX indicate that the company is unlikely to drastically slow that growth anytime soon. In 2021, Musk noted that SpaceX would only truly struggle with congestion once Starlink had “several million” subscribers. In late 2020, SpaceX also applied for FCC permission to operate up to five million user terminals (dishes that connect to Starlink) just in the United States.
Starlink’s design makes prioritizing a country or region essentially impossible. Instead of the large geostationary satellites most competitors operate tens of thousands of kilometers above Earth’s surface, where they more or less hover above a region of choice, Starlink satellites operate just 550 kilometers (~340 mi) up. At that altitude, each satellite orbits the Earth every 95 minutes and only spends a few minutes (or even seconds) over any given country. That strongly encourages SpaceX to serve customers in as many countries as possible, each of which has its own painful market entrance process for a new communications provider.
After years of work, SpaceX’s government relations team has secured permission to operate Starlink in roughly a quarter of all countries on Earth. Combined, those countries represent more than 1.5 billion people, 19% of the global population.
But Starlink likely only needs to convert a minuscule fraction of those people into customers to be a worthwhile and financially sustainable pursuit for SpaceX. The total capacity of the first 4405-satellite Starlink constellation can only be guessed at, but roughly estimating SpaceX’s total Starlink revenue is much easier. The cost of a subscription varies widely from country to country but Cloudflare indicates that the vast majority of subscribers live in countries where it costs around $100-110 per month and around $600 for a subsidized dish. Even accounting for SpaceX footing some of the bill for Starlink service in Ukraine, the network is almost certainly already generating more than a billion dollars of revenue per year
While the FCC is making it far from easy, SpaceX is already preparing to begin building a second-generation Starlink Gen2 constellation with nearly 30,000 satellites, each of which could launch with almost a magnitude more usable bandwidth than Gen 1 satellites. If SpaceX can continue to find new customers around the world, a million subscribers using Starlink Gen1 while the network is less than 70% complete imply that the most capable version of Starlink Gen2 could serve roughly 10-12 million subscribers at minimum. Assuming SpaceX does not substantially lower its revenue, the recurring revenue from 12 million Gen2 subscribers could be $14.5 billion per year.
Reaching Starlink profitability will be an even bigger challenge – and one that CEO Elon Musk has (perhaps overzealously) indicated could bankrupt SpaceX if the company attempts to do so with its Gen1 design. But securing a million active subscribers in two years and some 750,000 in the last nine months arguably indicates that SpaceX is on a good path and should allow the company to either decrease its fundraising burden or increase the reach of future spending on R&D and expansion.