US Air Force awards satellite internet access contract to SpaceX’s Starlink

The US Air Force Special Operations Command has awarded SpaceX a $1.9 million contract to use 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 yet to be determined. He cited Starlink’s ability to cover most of Europe and Africa as an important factor in his choice. Competing satellite internet service OneWeb was one of the competitors, but does not have the capacity to serve locations south of 50 degrees latitude.

The ability to operate in contested areas was an important factor. The US military has 750 bases in 80 other countries, some of which are close to conflict. The contract also cited the 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 Russian attempts to block or hack it during its invasion of Ukraine. SpaceX provided Starlink terminals to Ukraine to facilitate communications after a request from Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, some of which was paid for by the US government.

SpaceX is also offering a $25,000 bug bounty to people who find security flaws in the Starlink system and recently complimented a researcher who hacked into a Starlink terminal with $25 worth of equipment.

The Air Force contract award came shortly after the FCC rejected bids from Starlink and LTD Broadband to develop broadband Internet services for rural areas. A successful bid would have brought Starlink close to $1 billion. The FCC previously warned SpaceX about the inappropriate use of funds to expand internet accessibility in underserved areas.

On the positive side, SpaceX’s Starlink has been included in a series of contracts awarded by NASA to develop communications in space. NASA wants to complement the Deep Space Network it uses to communicate with unmanned 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 constellation of 12,000 satellites. The constellation could grow to 42,000 satellites for additional redundancy. SpaceX frequently launches new Starlink satellites, with the most recent launch taking place on August 19.

SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell said in a May 2021 interview that the total addressable market for satellite internet services could reach $1 trillion, which could help fund SpaceX’s ultimate goal of funding travel on Mars if it can grab a respectable market share. From a more practical, down-to-earth perspective, Starlink can be used by anything from regions previously ignored by ISPs to countries like Ukraine that are defending against invasions. The US Air Force is recognizing its capability with the award of a new $1.9 million contract to provide satellite internet service to its bases in Europe and Africa.

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