Ukraine’s fears that its troops may lose access to Elon Musk’s crucial Starlink internet service deepened in the past week after 1,300 of the military’s satellite units went offline, according to two sources familiar with the outage.
The small, easy-to-use satellite dishes made by Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX have been universally hailed as a game-changing source of communication for Ukraine’s military, allowing it to fight and stay online even as cellular phone and internet networks have been destroyed in its war with Russia.
But concerns have risen recently over the dependability of SpaceX after discussions about funding were revealed and outages were reported near the frontlines.
The recent outage started Oct. 24 and was described by one person briefed on the situation as a “huge problem” for Ukraine’s military. The terminals had been disconnected, this person said, due to a lack of funding.
The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals that Ukraine purchased from a British company in March and were used for combat-related operations.
SpaceX was charging Ukraine’s military $2,500 a month to keep each of the 1,300 units connected, pushing the total cost to almost $20 million by September, the person briefed on the matter said. Eventually, they could no longer afford to pay, the person said.
Some background: CNN first reported that SpaceX sent a letter in September to the Pentagon claiming it had spent almost $100 million funding Starlink in Ukraine and that it could no longer continue to do so. The letter requested that the Defense Department take over more of the funding for Ukraine’s military, which it calculated would run tens of millions of dollars a month.
Days after the CNN report, Musk appeared to reverse course, claiming that SpaceX had withdrawn the request.
“The hell with it,” Musk tweeted, “we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”
Negotiations between SpaceX and the Defense Department continue despite Musk’s claim that SpaceX withdrew its request, according to a senior defense official.
“Negotiations are very much underway. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” the senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department is eager to have commitments in writing “because we worry he’ll change his mind.”
On Wednesday, Musk attended a ceremony for US Space Force that also included Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Musk has also been embroiled in his high-profile and controversial takeover of Twitter.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to a request for comment. The Ukrainian government, including the Ministry of Defense, did not immediately respond.