StarLink is Disruptive Innovation. What does that mean?

In this article about Starlink’s latest launch Space News highlights that the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) are protesting the award of funding to Starlink. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a board member for my rural electric cooperative, and have been a voting delegate as a member to both of these organizations.)

In that article Tim Bryan, the CEO for NRTC is highlighted as questioning essentially to business model of Starlink. My favorite parts of his quotes were his saying he “struggles” to understand. Struggles to see. Struggles.

This doesn’t really surprise me. Existing technologies, and the companies that profit from them, usually do struggle with new. They don’t see it coming. They don’t see the actual threat. And then they deny it, and fight against it. In fact, this is what Clayton Christensen writes about in The Innovators Dilemma. In it, he writes:

However, what the incumbent companies don’t realize is that, over time, the disruptive product iteratively improves to be more and more capable. Eventually, it catches up to the existing product and does a good enough job, and often much more cheaply as well. Soon, the innovative product even leapfrogs the existing product, which has plateaued in its improvements due to limitations in its technology.

Innovator’s DIlemma, Christensen

I had a rather public discussion with the CEO of NRTC about SpaceX and StarLink. Back in November of 2019 I asked him about the “disruptive nature” this will have on the broadband industry, and specifically the “terrestrial” broadband. He argued the same sort of argument then, that he didn’t see how it could work financially, that it costs millions of dollars to put a satellite in orbit, and to recover all the costs Starlink would have to sell to oil rigs and cruise ships–but that it would never work on a global scale, especially not for rural areas

When I pushed a little further he fell back on his “over 30 years experience in this industry.” And perhaps we should mention that, while the article says:

“I’m really struggling on the physics and economics” of satellite broadband, said Tim Bryan, chief executive of the NRTC, in a Feb. 4 call with reporters. He claimed there were “anecdotal reports” of people who signed up for Starlink beta but were having problems getting connections any faster than four megabits per second, but didn’t elaborate.

It fails to mention the NRTC is actually a partner with VIASAT/Exede satellite. NRTC actually has a “dog in the hunt” on this one. Or, some might say, a conflict of interest.

So, in my opinion, Bryan is the perfect example of the definition of what makes a innovation disruptive. It is when the existing big dogs don’t see the little one coming, and deny the threat it poses to their very existence.

I for one am signed up to get Starlink. I see the potential. And the realization.

Do you?