The U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Command awarded SpaceX a $1.9 million contract to use the Starlink satellite Internet service in Europe and Africa for one year.
The Air Force will use Starlink to support airlift operations at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, as well as locations that are still to be determined. It cited Starlink’s ability to cover most of Europe and Africa as an important factor in its choice. Competing satellite Internet service OneWeb was one of the contenders but doesn’t have the capacity to serve locations south of 50 degrees latitude.
The ability to operate in contested zones was an important factor. The U.S. military has 750 bases in 80 other countries, some of them close to conflicts. The contract also cited Starlink satellites’ ability to provide low-latency communications from their positions in low-Earth orbit (LEO), which is important for environments that require fast response times.
The Pentagon recently complimented Starlink’s ability to resist Russia’s attempts to jam or hack it during its invasion of Ukraine. SpaceX provided Starlink terminals to Ukraine to assist with communications after a request from Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, some of them paid for by the U.S. government.
SpaceX also offers a $25,000 bug bounty to individuals who find security vulnerabilities in the Starlink system and recently complimented one researcher who hacked a Starlink terminal with $25 in equipment.
The Air Force’s contract award came hard on the heels of the FCC’s rejection of bids from Starlink and LTD Broadband to develop broadband Internet services for rural areas. A successful bid would have brought in nearly $1 billion for Starlink. The FCC had previously warned SpaceX about improper use of funds for developing Internet accessibility in underserved areas.
On the plus side, SpaceX’s Starlink was included in a round of contracts awarded by NASA to develop communications in space. NASA is interested in supplementing the Deep Space Network it uses to communicate with uncrewed spacecraft throughout the solar system. Starlink has until 2025 to complete its demonstration.
Starlink currently has 2,287 satellites in orbit out of a planned 12,000-satellite constellation. The constellation could grow to 42,000 satellites for extra redundancy. SpaceX frequently launches new Starlink satellites, with the most recent launch having occurred on August 19.
SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell said in a May 2021 interview that the total addressable market for satellite Internet service could reach $1 trillion, which could help fund SpaceX’s ultimate goal of funding trips to Mars if it can snag a respectable market share. From a more practical, down-to-Earth standpoint, Starlink can be used by anything from regions that have previously been ignored by ISPs to countries like Ukraine that are defending against invasions. The U.S. Air Force recognizes its capability with the award of a new $1.9 million contract to provide satellite Internet service to its bases in Europe and Africa.