May 1, 2024 - Business

Elon Musk controls key global infrastructure, from satellites to social media

Photo Illustration of Elon Musk with his head open and containing a cybertruck, tesla, a circular roadway, a spacex rocket, the twitter logo, a shooting star and gigacasting equiptment

Photo illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Do you trust Elon Musk to run crucial infrastructure? You might have no choice.

Why it matters: Musk controls the Starlink satellite-communications network; the Supercharger EV-charging network; and the X social-media network. All of them perform an important social function while being effectively unregulated.

Driving the news: On Monday, Musk laid off nearly all of the 500-strong Supercharger team, as part of his latest round of "absolutely hard core" Tesla budget cuts.

  • Such layoffs don't just affect Tesla; they also affect the global trajectory of EV adoption, given that Superchargers can be used by almost all new EVs.
  • Tesla has received millions of dollars in government subsidies to build out its network.

Between the lines: Tesla's Superchargers have developed a reputation as the fastest and most reliable charging stations in the country.

  • Now, Tesla is reportedly backing out of planned new Supercharger leases in New York City. Musk says the network will grow at a "slower pace."

Flashback: Last year, the New Yorker's Ronan Farrow reported that Ukrainian forces found their Starlink communications cut off when they advanced into Russian-controlled territory.

  • Musk told Pentagon officials investigating the incident that he had been in direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that he was uncomfortable with his technology being used to wage war.
  • The U.S. government is also increasingly reliant on Starlink parent SpaceX, the only U.S. entity currently able to send people to orbit. The company's rockets are slated to take astronauts to the Moon in 2026.

Meanwhile: Since Musk took over Twitter, he has laid off 80% of the engineers focused on trust and safety, and no longer has any full-time staff dedicated to global hateful conduct issues, per a report released this year by the Australian government.

The big picture: Starlink, X, and the Superchargers are all global rather than national, beholden to no regulator. These networks owe their continued existence and health to staying in Musk's good graces — which can come and go with startling speed.

The bottom line: Musk is one of the world's most mercurial men. He doesn't just have immense power over these quasi-utilities; he's also unafraid to wield it.

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