MWC Elon Musk Keynote Recap: Taking Mobile Global

When the telecommunications world talks about advances in internet connectivity, it tends to focus on communities that already have internet access. But according to the GSMA, about 3.7 billion people worldwide lack internet; for many, it’s because broadband is unreliable or inaccessible where they live.

SpaceX is looking to tackle that problem. In his keynote at MWC Barcelona, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared that the aerospace company is pivoting its resources to create the Starlink satellite constellation, which will provide broadband coverage focusing on remote parts of the globe.

Musk told attendees to “think of Starlink as filling in the gaps of 5G and fiber” for the hard-to-reach 3-5 percent of world population.

Communications services providers (CSPs) are considering how they might build partnerships with low earth-orbiting (LEO) satellite providers like Starlink. Musk said Starlink will be “a great natural complement to major telco, fiber and 5G,” and that they have forged partnerships with at least two CSPs (which he couldn’t yet announce as of MWC).

The satellite constellation can be helpful to CSPs trying to acquire 5G licenses in countries where they must provide a certain amount of rural coverage.

“It’s very difficult to make the economic case for rural coverage,” said Musk.

Starlink can either provide rural network coverage or, for CSPs with existing rural towers, provide backhaul.

Musk acknowledged that broadband satellite businesses have proven difficult to get off the ground, so to speak. “Step one for Starlink is don’t go bankrupt,” he joked.

But according to Musk, what’s different in Starlink’s approach is that the satellite technology is in many cases “more advanced than what is on the ground.” The company is looking to get latency down to under 20 milliseconds, Musk said, making Starlink capable of supporting competitive video games, for example.

Traditionally, broadband satellite providers have had to prove the technology on the ground, then test it for space-readiness, potentially dating the technology by the time it launches. Starlink will be virtually “space-native,” and Musk likened the project to “rebuilding the internet in space.”

As CSPs and satellite providers look to the future (and to the stars), they will need to make sure they have systems in place that can scale to demand in real time and activate and monitor devices. Monetizing connectivity and building real-time go-to-market plans can help make sure LEO satellite ventures take flight.