By Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Ashlee Vance, Dana Hull
SpaceX has already launched more than 240 satellites to build out Starlink, which will start delivering internet services to customers from space this summer, President Gwynne Shotwell said Thursday at a private investor event hosted by JPMorgan Chase in Miami.
"Right now, we are a private company, but Starlink is the right kind of business that we can go ahead and take public," said Shotwell, SpaceX's chief operating officer. "That particular piece is an element of the business that we are likely to spin out and go public."
Founded in 2002, SpaceX has grown to dominate the commercial rocket industry through its work flying satellites into orbit for customers including the U.S. military, as well carrying cargo to the International Space Station. It is aiming to start flying humans, as well, both for NASA and high-paying tourists.
But the rocket launch business remains competitive and tough. Starlink and its ability to provide high-speed internet across the globe has helped private investors justify a roughly $33 billion valuation of the closely held company. Musk has long maintained that SpaceX itself is unlikely to go public until it is regularly ferrying people to Mars.
SpaceX is one of a handful of players that wants to build out a space internet system that can serve people who struggle to access the web today via fiber optic and cellular connections. Starlink would beam down relatively high-speed data from its network of satellites orbiting the Earth.
Right now, SpaceX can only cover higher latitudes, but by the end of the year, it expects to have global coverage, Shotwell said at the conference. Such a service would, in effect, turn SpaceX into a telecommunications company that also has a rocket business.
"This is going to turn SpaceX into a company that is providing service to consumers, which we are excited about," Shotwell said. The company has been launching roughly 60 satellites at a time into orbit, and with another four launches expects to have global coverage. Shotwell said that service will be "less than what you are paying now for about five to 10 times the speed you are getting."
An IPO likely would be welcomed by some SpaceX employees and investors. Musk has been reluctant to force SpaceX to endure the scrutiny that comes with being a public company and to reveal the details of SpaceX's financials. This has left employees sitting on valuable stock, which they're typically only able to sell during a limited number of private transactions. An IPO for Starlink might also allow its longtime backers to register gains on their high-risk investment.
There have been attempts to build similar space internet services in the past, and no company has figured out how to turn such a system into a huge, global business. Starlink dwarfs all these previous attempts in terms of the size and scope of its ambition.
Over the coming years, SpaceX intends to place thousands of satellites into orbit and will increase the bandwidth of its service with each launch. Exactly how many people will be willing to pay for this service remains an open question.