Elon Musk recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to a one-handed fight for the future of Ukraine. But the entrepreneur’s real defence of the besieged country is his attempt to keep Ukrainians online with shipments of Starlink satellite Internet service.
Starlink is a unit of Musk’s space company SpaceX. The service uses terminals that resemble TV dishes equipped with antennas and mounted on roofs to access the Internet via satellite, usually in rural or disconnected areas.
When war broke out in Ukraine, the country faced threats from Russian cyberattacks and shelling that had the potential to take down the Internet, making it necessary to develop a backup plan. So the country’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a direct petition to Musk urging him to send help. Musk replied a few hours later: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route. ,
Ukraine has already received thousands of antennas from Musk’s companies and European allies, which have proved “very effective,” Fedorov said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday.
“The quality of the link is excellent,” said Fedorov via a translator, using a Starlink connection from an undisclosed location. “We’re using terminals in the region of thousands, thousands, with new shipments coming in every other day.”
Experts say the use of Starlink as a stopgap measure for civilians and the government to stay connected during an invasion is a major test of the relatively new technology and could have broad implications for the future of war. The Internet has become an essential tool for communication, staying informed and even empowering weapons.
It’s also a test for Musk. The world’s richest man, worth $232 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, makes a habit of turning to Twitter for brazen promises and announcements amid worldwide crises. Already this week, the Tesla CEO has challenged Putin to a fight and then vowed to use only one hand if Putin got scared. And he told Putin that he could bring a bear.
He has fallen short of some previous promises, including efforts to make ventilators for coronavirus patients and help rescue Thai children trapped in a cave.
But this time, Fedorov and some experts say he has arrived. Tesla employees in Europe reportedly assemble the system to help power Starlink in Ukraine, and Fedorov said other European countries have shipped Starlink equipment from their supplies.
Musk responded to a request for comment on his efforts with Starlink and previous efforts, asking The Post to pay its respects to “your puppet master Basso.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Musk did not specifically respond to a follow-up request on his work with Starlink in Ukraine.
SpaceX declined to comment on its work in Ukraine.
Experts said the internet could be disrupted due to power outages or fibre optic cables. Starlink technology is being used by civilians in attacked areas, who have lost internet service, and government officials. Starlink terminals have also been provided to help the country’s tech companies stay online at a time when war has forced them to relocate. The Times of London reports that a Ukrainian unit is using Starlink to connect its drones attacking the Russian military.
Starlink has grown rapidly in recent years, outpacing some satellite Internet competitors by launching more than 1,000 satellites into space. People can buy the service online for $99 per month and $499 for equipment, but Starlink warns that it can take six or more months to ship in some cases.
A person familiar with Starlink’s effort in Ukraine, discussing sensitive matters on condition of anonymity, said the country has more than 5,000 terminals.
Still, experts said that even a large Starlink network probably wouldn’t have enough power to keep an entire country online and operating at full speed. But terminals can serve as a reliable backup as Internet services falter. Fedorov said he and his staff are in discussions with other European leaders and companies about additional satellite and cellular technologies that could help keep Ukrainians online in the event of greater Internet outages.
@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) February 26, 2022
According to data-monitoring services, Internet flow deteriorated and never fully recovered on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. But since that initial drop, connectivity has remained fairly stable, with mainly temporary, isolated outages even during periods of heavy Russian shelling.
“There are outages every day, but generally there is service back,” said Doug Madori, Kentick’s director of internet analysis, which tracks global data flows.
Before Fedorov tweeted at Musk for help, SpaceX was working on a way to bring Starlink to Ukraine. President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a talk at the California Institute of Technology this month that the company had been working for several weeks to gain regulatory approval to allow satellites to communicate in Ukraine.
“But then he tweeted,” she said, according to SpaceNews. “We have permission.”
He said Fedorov’s agency is working to deliver Starlink terminals to areas where internet access has been turned off. In some instances the system has been used to connect people when cellular networks in the country have been overloaded.
Fedorov said he has written briefly with Musk and the tech billionaire has also called with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
To find out the location of antennas, experts say.
While it is unclear whether Russia may be using the signals to target attacks, Musk directed caution on Twitter.
“IMPORTANT WARNING: Starlink is the only non-Russian communication system still operating in parts of Ukraine, so the chances of being targeted are high,”
he tweeted. He said that users should turn on the terminal only when needed and keep it away from people.
Experts have warned that the devices could give Russian attackers the locations of Ukrainians, but that has not been an issue until now, Fedorov said.
The devices are typically used in “densely populated areas where there will be a lot of civilians anyway.”
He added that Russian cyberattacks have not yet escalated to the system.
“They are currently very busy attacking the websites of our small towns and villages,” Fedorov said. “I guess they just aren’t at that point.”
Are starlink satellites being jammed?— SPadre (@SpacePadreIsle) March 5, 2022
Since Starlink is still relatively new, there is a lot to explore if and how it is possible to use in conflict zones, defence and space industry experts say.
“The answer is it’s potentially useful, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Brian Wyden, director of program planning for the space sustainability non-profit Secure World Foundation, pointing to the risk of cyberattacks and What are the needs really?
The Russians, as well as many others, have technology capable of finding, jamming, and sometimes intercepting many types of broadcasts. Starlink’s technology could be a target for these efforts, said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
“But I think it’s really important that people in Ukraine and areas with no connectivity connect, so it’s a question of understanding and balancing the risk,” he said.