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What’s Behind SpaceX Starlink’s Sudden, Massive Growth?

If a company you were watching announced that, in the space of just a month or two, it grew its customer count by more than 70%, would you be inclined to buy it?

Elon Musk hopes you will, and in the run-up to the hotly anticipated IPO of his Starlink satellite internet company (a subsidiary of SpaceX), it appears Starlink has just accomplished this near-impossible feat: Growing its subscriber count from 145,000 users to 250,000 between January and March (and maybe even between January and February).

Potential investors in Starlink, I imagine, were more than a little excited by this news but … precisely how did SpaceX accomplish this?

Image source: Getty Images.

Starlink’s growth problem

As recently as three months ago, subscriber growth at Starlink was slowing, not growing — and the problem this posed for SpaceX and its IPO plans.

To recap, from January 2021 through January 2022, SpaceX added about 11,000 new Starlink subscribers per month. Growth had slowed markedly in the latter months of 2021, however, with Starlink eking out just 5,000 total subscriber growth between November 2021 (when it reported 140,000 subscribers) and January 2022 (when it reached 145,000). And with growth rates grinding slower, it appears SpaceX would not reach its stated goal of hitting 500,000 total global subscribers by mid-2022. 

But then a miracle happened.

Starlink’s growth problem…solved?

Speaking at the Satellite 2022 conference in Washington, D.C., on March 22, SpaceX vice president of Starlink commercial sales Jonathan Hofeller announced, “We currently have 250,000 subscribers, and that’s across consumer, enterprise, and many businesses.”  

That’s an impressive number, representing 105,000 new subscribers added since January — 72.4% subscriber growth in the space of just two months. Hofeller was not clear on where all these new customers magically appeared from, although he did reference SpaceX’s recent deliveries of Starlink satellites to Ukraine, at the request of that country’s government, as well as musing about attracting new customers in the form of schools and even airplanes utilizing Starlink for in-flight internet service.

Equipped with a Starlink terminal, “every single passenger on [an airplane] can stream simultaneously if need be,” Hofeller told his audience.  

Still, the implication was that Starlink-for-airplanes was a service that might be offered in the future — not one that had already rolled out to wide consumer acclaim. Thus, the sudden uptick in subscriber numbers remained a surprise — and a mystery.

So did SpaceX really deliver more than 100,000 new Starlink dishes to brand-new customers between January and March? Or was SpaceX perhaps “double counting” its terminals — counting multiple users of a single terminal as independent subscribers to make the numbers look bigger?

How big a surprise was it?

That second theory might have seemed the answer, except for one detail: On February 14, quite out of the blue, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted out the following announcement:

And as DigitalTrends commented at the time, “Whether Musk’s revelation refers to paying customers or the number of terminals built to date isn’t clear.” But Musk’s reference to “terminals” rather than “subscribers” in February at least makes it clear that Hofeller couldn’t have been counting multiple users on a single terminal as subscribers in March.

Assuming both he and his CEO were referencing the same number, then they must both have been telling us there really are 250,000 Starlink terminals out there around the globe — and apparently, that each such terminal counts as a paying subscriber.  

What it means for investors

When you get right down to it, assuming SpaceX is telling the truth — and I have to assume that it is — then how SpaceX managed this feat remains a mystery. (And it may remain so. A question I posed Musk on this point, on Twitter, remains unanswered).

Still, if we assume the numbers as reported are accurate, this means  Starlink had 145,000 subscribers in January, 250,000 subscribers in March, and therefore is now adding subscribers at the rate of roughly 52,500 per month! (And maybe even faster. February was a short month). That’s great news for SpaceX, for Starlink, and for anyone on a waiting list to receive a Starlink terminal.

It still doesn’t mean SpaceX will reach its target of having its targeted 500,000 subscribers by mid-2022, however. Having 250,000 subscribers in March, plus a hypothetical 157,500 more subscribers through the end of June, would still leave SpaceX about 92,500 subscribers short of its goal. And this is the biggest implication for would-be investors in a Starlink IPO:

Even accepting Starlink’s explosive growth in 2022 as a given, the company is still coming up short on its subscriber numbers. Lacking sufficient subscribers, Starlink is probably behind-plan on its quest for profitability, and that’s likely to delay the Starlink IPO.

(But don’t fret. Even if Starlink’s IPO is delayed, there’s still a way you can buy stock in SpaceX itself — and here’s how).