The EU is discussing whether to cover the subscription cost of Starlink terminals Elon Musk donated to Ukraine as part of options to protect internet communications in the war-stricken country.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, has instructed officials to draw up plans to boost internet coverage in Ukraine after Musk threatened to stop paying for running Starlink terminals he donated to Kyiv, three officials familiar with the decision told the FT. The US-based billionaire said it cost his company SpaceX up to $20 million a month to run the devices.
Musk’s mobile internet systems have become crucial to Ukrainian military communications on the battlefield where internet infrastructure has been damaged. More than 20,000 Starlink terminals are in Ukraine, many of which are 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 tweeted on Monday, “To be precise, 25,300 devices have been sent to Ukraine, but right now only 10,630 are paying for the service.”
While the contractor said on Saturday it had changed its mind and would cover the cost of running the terminals “indefinitely”, EU officials say they are concerned about its reliability. Some member states used a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday to pledge money to fund the service.
“For now, let’s be happy that he is paying for it. But we have to be careful,” one of the officials said. “The Ukrainians are very worried that he will cut it again.”
The talks with the EU come as Kyiv reported widespread outages of Starlink devices on the frontline in recent weeks and the Pentagon revealed talks with the billionaire over the cost of terminals in the country. Musk insisted on Monday that SpaceX had since “already withdrawn its request for funding.”
But the EU is weighing whether to negotiate a formal contract with SpaceX and create a common fund to pay for Starlink terminals the company has donated. EU officials will also explore other satellite options, they said.
Proponents of a fund say it would allow them to sue Musk if he suspended the service, rather than simply relying on his personal decision to continue providing it.
The official said: “One option is that we pay for Starlink because it is already operational, they already have thousands of terminals in the field. . . contract [with EU countries] would bring stability.
“But why do we need Musk? Other companies may 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 consider as potential steps.
Western nations praised Musk earlier this year after Starlink was used to bring internet services to Ukraine following Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February. But this month he angered Ukrainian officials for outlining a peace settlement that involved Russia keeping the Crimean peninsula annexed.
The Financial Times also revealed that some Starlink terminals had stopped working in areas recently liberated from Russian occupation, raising questions about whether SpaceX was blocking service to parts of the front lines.
Musk later appeared to threaten to pull Starlink services, complaining that his company was spending millions to “create, launch, maintain and resupply satellites and ground stations and pay telcos for internet access via gateways”.