Is Elon Musk’s Starlink actually making a difference in Ukraine?

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elon musk (l) satellite (r) providing starlink in ukraine

When Russia invaded his country in late February, Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov knew what role he had to play. He was going to rally support from all the international tech companies he could get a hold of—from Apple and Google to PayPal and even Netflix—to shut Russia out of the global internet. At the same time, he needed to protect Ukrainian telecommunications at all costs. Many companies heeded his call, cutting ties with Russia in one way or another. But one tech entrepreneur was particularly vocal about it: SpaceX founder and compulsive tweeter Elon Musk.

In an impassioned tweet on Feb. 26, just two days after the invasion began, Federov asked Musk to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations. 

The Ukrainian politician was referring to SpaceX’s satellite internet systems, which are being marketed as a solution for rural or remote communities with no ability to obtain high-speed, low-latency broadband internet. Shaped like little dishes, or “Dishys,” Starlink kits automatically locate the closest, low-orbit satellite and connect to it, replacing the need for other web infrastructure, like fiber cables and cell towers.

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Musk replied within mere hours: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” Since then, Federov told the Washington Post his country has received thousands of terminals both from SpaceX and from neighboring European countries, and that they are proving to be “very effective.” The minister has been posting pictures of the batches as they reach the country. Tesla, the other company Musk founded, is also assisting with the deliveries, providing battery storage systems to power the terminals.

This satellite Internet technology, which recently exited the beta testing phase, provides consistent connectivity for its users around the world, especially in remote areas. But there are a number of issues that make its arrival in Ukraine useless at best, and dangerous for its users at worst. Ukraine’s advanced internet infrastructure means the country has so far witnessed outages mostly in the areas that are most exposed to the war (making shipping Dishys there difficult), and the risks of people being completely shut off from communications is very limited.

Yet, Musk has been hailed as a savior, with conservative news outlets saying the Stalink deliveries “changed the game for Ukraine” and Fedorov saying his help “is making Ukraine more open to the entire world.” The app that allows mobile users to access SpeceX’s satellite service has become one of the most downloaded apps in Ukraine, according to Sensor Tower, a firm that analyzes App Store and Google Play data. According to Sensor Tower, the app has now been downloaded nearly 100,000 times in the Eastern European country of 44 million inhabitants. 

Oleg Kutkov, a Kyiv-based Ukrainian engineer and early adopter of the Starlink technology, told the Daily Dot in an email he believes the spike in app downloads is mostly due to the hype surrounding Starlink in the country at the moment. “People heard about the Starlink internet in the news because many media [outlets] wrote about this topic,” he said. “But most people don’t understand how it works. They think that the Starlink app magically helps to connect to the service.” The app is only useful if a Dishy is accessible.

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Kutkov didn’t receive his terminal with the latest wave of deliveries: he had bought one on eBay in December 2021 just for the sake of taking it apart and studying how its works. Before the war broke, the service was only available in 14 countries around the world and Ukraine was not one of them. When Musk activated the service in the country, though, Kutkov thought it was worth a shot.

“I decided that it might be a good backup solution for internet connectivity. I had to put my terminal back together,” he said. It worked: “I put my terminal just outside my window and got the connection. I did a few speed tests. I must admit that the results are impressive despite the state of my terminal and obstructions around.”

After sharing his tests on Twitter, messages from all over the country started to flood in, asking about the connection. His main complaint with the technology is its cost. “As far as I know, the service is free for three months. I don’t know what will happen after this,” he says.

Aside from the infrastructural cost of buying a terminal, which costs $499, a regular Starlink plan starts at $99 a month. “It’s an enormous price for Ukrainian users. Typically, we pay around $10-$20 for a high-speed fiber optics channel.”

When contacted for comment, the Ukrainian government has not clarified whether the service will keep being free after the trial period. It is not clear if Musk is providing Ukraine with Starlink free of charge either.

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Kutkov eventually created a Facebook group, “Інтернет SpaceX Starlink в Україні | SpaceX Starlink in Ukraine,” where just shy of 400 members share their experiences with the technology. One user showed his newly delivered Dishy in Lviv, while another shared a post by a local politician in the Rivne region thanking the government for sending them a batch. 

According to the minister for Digital Transformation, the country is using thousands of Starlink terminals, but the precise number is unclear. It’s also unclear who the terminals are being distributed to and whether they are being sent to people in the areas where the intense fighting and cyberattacks are causing temporary outages. The Daily Dot reached out to the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation for comment, and they said they can’t provide further information on the issue for national security reasons.

However, places like Lviv and Rivne are in the eastern part of the country, which is not seeing the brunt of Russia’s invasion.

Internet monitoring organization NetBlocks has noticed that web traffic across the country has been lower than usual since the invasion—but, as Quartz’s Nicolas Rivero points out, this is partly explained by the fact that at least 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country over the past three weeks. 

Residents of the city of Mariupol, which has suffered some of the worst Russian attacks in the country, struggled to find an internet connection for a week.

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“We have problems with the network mostly in the areas where fighting is happening: in the Kyiv region, in cities like Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel, Vorsel. The connection is not always stable in the regions of Kharkiv, Kherson, Cernihiv, Melitopil,” Fedorov told Italian news agency Adnkronos.

But Ukrainians thinking they can turn to Starlink to overcome the outages have another issue to keep in mind: it could be putting a target on them. After security experts warned the terminals could be tracked and targeted by Russian airstrikes, Musk admitted that it could be an issue

Starlink also had some connection issues in the country itself: in early March, Musk stated that Starlink’s satellite broadband service was facing severe signal jamming for several hours at a time in Ukraine. The CEO promised that the company was working on a quick software update to bypass this issue.

Since its first launch in 2015, Starlink has also been characterized as working well but also not being very reliable: “It has a number of early-adoption customers globally that seem generally seem happy with the service, from what I’ve seen,” Dan Swinhoe, a specialized journalist who frequently covers the satellite Internet space for Datacenter Dynamics, told the Daily Dot. “It has however suffered a number of outages in the last year or two and service might be spotty as the company continues to launch more satellites to provide global coverage and make software updates.”

“In my opinion, Starlink isn’t the savior of Ukraine or going to be useful for everyone in the country, but likely is providing an important service for those who do have access and aren’t facing jamming attempts by invading forces, especially in areas where other communications options have been disrupted,” he continued. 

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Musk has a reputation for under-delivering on his grandiose promises: in 2018, for instance, he put together a team of engineers to build an escape pod to rescue a group of teenagers who were stuck in a flooded cave in Thailand, but his effort didn’t prove useful. In March 2020, he also said Tesla would start building ventilators to aid with the COVID-19 pandemic response, but the prototype was never put into production. 

In January, though, SpaceX’s delivery of Starlink terminals to the island of Tonga after a volcanic explosion destroyed its web infrastructures proved very helpful, connecting “isolated villages in desperate need of connectivity” to the rest of world for free until a severed cable was replaced.

In contrast with remote Tonga, Ukraine also has a much stronger telecommunications infrastructure, made up of cellular networks, fiber-optic cables, and satellite internet services provided by several different companies—making the country much harder to wipe off the face of the internet.

“Currently, I’m not using my Starlink because all the terrestrial internet channels are working or fixed quickly,” Kutkov, the Kyiv-based engineer, told us. “But there are a lot of regions with damaged infrastructure, a lot of critical infrastructure objects, and militaries in the fields. They all should be online using reliable and independent channels.”

It’s just impossible to tell if a service like that is being provided by Starlink.

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The post Is Elon Musk’s Starlink actually making a difference in Ukraine? appeared first on The Daily Dot.



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