The ultimate Musk-have: satellite WiFi, naturally
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Technology news every morning.
The Hamptons is home to nine-figure estates, million-dollar golf-club memberships and $100-per-pound lobster salads. The 40-mile stretch offers residents the best money can buy. Except reliable broadband. “We’re in East Hampton, we’re one of the premiere destinations in the world,” Peter Corbett, an executive coach, tells me. “And there’s literally no cell service.”
It’s well known that residents of tiny towns – from Martha’s Vineyard to Montauk – can’t count on a consistent communications connection. But a new solution is quietly taking off in the summer enclaves: Starlink, Elon Musk’s internet provider.
Users only need a dish and a router, no fibre cable required. For a $599 dish and $120 in monthly fees, they can tap into Starlink’s constellation of satellites orbiting around 340 miles above Earth and access the internet. That might sound expensive for internet service, but it’s hard to put a price tag on a rich man’s need for speed.
In Montauk, Hank Suominen works in commercial real estate and his wife owns an advertising firm. The two use video conferencing services regularly. “We dropped connections all the time because the system is kind of old,” he told me. They tried a 5G cellular solution, but it didn’t fare much better. So Suominen signed up for Starlink and got on the waiting list. Around three months later, the dish arrived.
“For quite a stretch, it became our primary service,” he tells me. Similar to other Starlink customers in summer towns, Suominen pays for both the town’s main broadband provider and Starlink. As town internet providers lose out on their quasi-monopoly status thanks to alternative internet providers like Starlink, companies are beginning to invest more in boosting their service. Optimum has since upgraded Suominen’s home to a fibre connection. “I have a switch in the house that constantly monitors Optimum versus Starlink and it’s always going back and forth,” he says.
Alex Karoussos, the owner of a Hamptons-based technology advisory, who is marketing Starlink to his Hamptonite clients, is betting that they will use Starlink in addition to another provider. “Our strategy is just to put it as an option for the house for redundant backup if you want it,” he tells me.
A short flight away in Nantucket, Steven Spencer, a partner at a trading firm based in midtown Manhattan, needs a strong internet connection in his Siasonset summer spot during market hours. He pays for two backups: Starlink and T-Mobile. Starlink “might become my primary as they add more satellites, but right now it’s still not perfect,” he told me.
The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union recently estimated that more than nine in 10 people have access to mobile broadband across the world, but that still leaves 390 million without. In Africa, nearly one in five people cannot access a mobile broadband network. In 2021, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, advocated for universal access to the internet as a “basic human right”.
Starlink, which is operated by SpaceX (which declined to comment for this article), has signed up more than one million users in more than 30 countries since its first batch of satellites launched in May 2019. According to the company’s website, Starlink hopes to provide internet to “rural communities that have historically gone unserved by traditional internet service providers”. That includes everyone from influencers at The Surf Lodge in Montauk to the Ukrainian military (SpaceX gifted Ukraine’s government about 20,000 Starlink units, costing the company at least $80mn, according to a Musk tweet in October 2022).
Most of Europe and North America, and parts of South America, are covered by the service, with noticeable gaps in Russia (perhaps not surprisingly), China and some parts of the United States. Starlink awaits regulatory approval in countries such as India and Pakistan. Providing internet hasn’t been smooth sailing. In the United States, the FCC denied Starlink nearly $1bn in subsidies because the company “failed to demonstrate [Starlink] could deliver the promised service”.
Musk’s service is beginning to take off in other exclusive vacation hotspots such as the Maldives and Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. As more people flock to summer enclaves full-time and working from home continues to accelerate, improving these towns’ internet connection becomes ever more pressing. As an executive coach, working from home, Corbett still has to leave his home to find somewhere where the connection is strong enough. “There have been times when I’m coaching CEOs of billion-dollar-plus companies in a parking lot in East Hampton village, because that’s where the cell service is strongest,” he says. Sounds like it’s time he looked to the stars.