The EU is discussing whether to cover the subscription cost of the Starlink terminals Elon Musk donated to Ukraine as part of options to safeguard internet communications in the war-stricken country.
Josep Borrell, EU chief diplomat, has tasked officials with drawing up plans to bolster internet coverage in Ukraine after Musk threatened to stop paying for the running of the Starlink terminals he donated to Kyiv, three officials with knowledge of the decision told the FT. The US-based billionaire has said it was costing his company SpaceX up to $20mn a month to run the devices.
Musk’s mobile internet systems have become crucial to the Ukrainian army’s communications on the battlefield where internet infrastructure has been damaged. More than 20,000 Starlink terminals are in Ukraine, many of them used by the military. While some of them were donated by SpaceX, many are paid for by the US government, western allies or through crowdfunding.
Musk on Monday tweeted: “To be precise, 25,300 terminals were sent to Ukraine, but, at present, only 10,630 are paying for service.”
While the entrepreneur on Saturday said he had changed his mind and would cover the cost of running the terminals “indefinitely”, EU officials say they are concerned over his reliability. Some member states used a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday to pledge cash to fund the service.
“For the time being, let’s be happy that he is paying for it. But we need to be on the safe side,” said one of the officials. “The Ukrainians are very worried that he will still cut it off.”
The EU discussions come as Kyiv reported widespread outages of Starlink devices on the frontline in recent weeks and as the Pentagon disclosed talks with the billionaire over the cost of the terminals in the country. Musk on Monday insisted SpaceX had since “already withdrawn its request for funding”.
But the EU is evaluating whether to negotiate a formal contract with SpaceX and set up a joint fund to pay for the Starlink terminals the company donated. EU officials will also explore alternative satellite options, they said.
Proponents of a fund say that it would allow them to take Musk to court if he suspended the service, rather than simply relying on his personal decision to keep providing it.
The official said: “One option is that we pay for Starlink because it is already operational, they have thousands of terminals already there on the ground . . . a contract [with EU countries] would bring stability.”
“But why do we need Musk? Other companies might be able to provide this service,” they added. “It could be cheaper and more reliable.”
A second official said paying for Starlink was “just one of many possible options” the EU could look into as potential steps.
Western countries praised Musk earlier this year after Starlink was used to bring internet services to Ukraine in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February. But this month, he angered Ukrainian officials for outlining a peace settlement involving Russia keeping the annexed Crimean peninsula.
The Financial Times also revealed some Starlink terminals had stopped working in areas recently liberated from Russian occupation, raising questions about whether SpaceX was blocking the service to some parts of the front lines.
Musk later appeared to threaten to withdraw Starlink services, complaining that his company was spending millions to “create, launch, maintain & replenish satellites & ground stations & pay telcos for access to internet via gateways”.