Why Elon Musk Is the Go-To Internet Provider

Just like Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. On February 26, two days after Russia launched its all-out attack on Ukraine, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. tweeted than the richest man in the world.

“When your rocket lands safely from space – Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civilians!” Fedorov wrote. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations,” he added.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites that have been deployed near the surface of the Earth through a series of rocket launches since the middle of 2019 by the parent company SpaceX. The company’s online services are available to individuals, businesses, and even airlines, with prices starting at $110 per month. The equipment used to connect them, small satellite dishes the company calls terminals, cost $599 and up. Starlink satellites operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO)—within 1,200 miles of the Earth’s surface—closer to geosynchronous satellites launched by competing companies that provide internet connectivity. This means that it takes less time for data to travel from locations on Earth to satellites in orbit and back.

Musk responded to Fedorov’s tweet the same day, telling him that Starlink’s service “is now active in Ukraine,” indicating that its satellites will begin to connect to the country, and promise to deliver more opportunities. More than eight months later, Starlink has played a key role in keeping Ukraine’s military and civilians online as the war rages and Russia targets telecommunications and energy infrastructure of Ukraine.

“This is the beginning of a great story, because Starlink technology changed this war,” Fedorov told the audience at the Web Conference in Lisbon in early November. Satellite internet service not only keeps Ukrainian citizens and businesses online but is critical to the war effort, helping soldiers communicate with each other on the ground. war, including the deployment of drones and weapons systems to keep the operation going.

But Starlink’s importance to Ukraine’s military operations raises the question of why the U.S. government has not provided this service, since it has already provided Ukraine with more than $20 billion in this time to help soldiers and humanitarian aid. Is it a good idea for Ukraine to rely on one company—one person—to stay online in the middle of a war?

Starlink has many advantages over other communications systems other than small-satellites. Its terminals are smaller and easier to set up than the typical satellite dish that needs to be connected.

“It’s about the size of a medium pizza box,” said Andrew Cavalier, an analyst at technology intelligence firm ABI Research who focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. This will make it easier to send in the war zone, but also, he said, “there are fewer ports, the communication method, many parts, better coverage between the country and wind.”

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There are companies working on similar LEO communications, including OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper Project (funded by Musk’s billionaire friend Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese firms GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But those companies are still waiting to begin commercial operations, Cavalier said, giving Musk and Starlink a big head start that its use in the Russia-Ukraine conflict will only compound.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Olga Stefanishyna, said that Starlink played an important role in helping Ukraine defend against the Russian invasion, especially in the first days of the war. “Our government has been able to run it because I have Starlink on my head,” he said. “This is the change in our lives.”

But Musk’s Ukrainian internet isn’t all love. According to various reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine have been funded by the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland. A spokesman for the Polish government confirmed that Poland has paid about $5.9 million for Starlink services, with support from Polish government agencies.

Washington has financed a small part of the Starlink sites in Ukraine. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1,508 terminals in March for a total of $3 million, according to a USAID spokesperson. The agency also released 3,667 extras donated by SpaceX, with the company paying for internet services for all terminals.

“USAID has purchased Starlink ports, but has not paid for Starlink service,” the spokesperson said. “As in many mobile network markets, the main cost factor is not the device itself, but the service, which SpaceX offers for free for all devices.”

SpaceX, the US Defense Department, and the UK Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for further information on funding for Starlink. Musk tweeted in mid-October less than half of the 25,300 Starlink terminals in Ukraine paid for the service.

But there remains concern about fitting all of Ukraine’s wartime interests into one package; sudden cutting can be very dangerous. That happened in late October, when 1,300 Starlink terminals went offline, allegedly due to a lack of funding. The Ukrainian military died in silence, just weeks after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it could no longer continue to pay for Ukraine’s satellite services and ask the Pentagon to foot the bill.

Musk later retracted those requests, tweeting Starlink will “fund Ukraine … for free” and then SpaceX “his bail application was withdrawn,” although negotiations between the company and the US government are said to be ongoing.

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Stefanishyna, speaking to reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 19, Musk also told his government that he would continue to fund Starlink in Ukraine. “We have Elon Musk’s Twitter account when he confirmed that he will go bankrupt [Starlink], and he talks to our minister about the digital revolution. So we thought of a deal,” he said.

But Stefanishyna also expressed concerns about the billionaire’s ability to capitalize on those efforts, given his desire for a sudden rush between new ventures and returns from previous big deals. He said that Ukraine is planning to complement Starlink and other systems, if Musk also leaves this job.

“Given how uncertain the position of the CEO of SpaceX is from the willingness and unwillingness to continue financial support, we are doing it for ourselves,” he said. Satellite companies operating from geosynchronous orbit may be able to serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says it is already supporting the country by connecting flights near Slovakia) , but setting up and maintaining the infrastructure to provide those connections will be more burdensome than the Starlink experience.

“From a commercial perspective, Starlink is unique in the market right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security, adding that the America’s military is usually built and designed for more information. purposes, and therefore of narrower use.

“The US military has different requirements and needs than the civilian application,” he said in an email. “Starlink is kind of a general project. … It’s easier to use for someone like Ukraine—on top of that, it’s a commercial product, so it’s easier,” he added.

More options can be overwhelming, however.

“Come on [Ukraine’s] The idea is that changing their network structure is a better idea … because if Elon Musk decides that he doesn’t want to give out connections on demand, they will all be gone,” Cavalier said. .

Although Musk has a higher profile than most CEOs—especially after he acquired Twitter—the involvement of private companies in military conflicts is not new, nor is the battle over who will pay for those services. But the Pentagon is supposed to be dealing with traditional military contractors, not billionaires running Russian propaganda in the middle of the Ukraine conflict.

“It’s not unheard of for other contractors to dispute the US government,” Metrick said. The difference here is that Musk is not “the CEO of a traditional military contract.”

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And Starlink went to war in a unique way, too.

“We often go to the commercial sector to get more space communications. We have done it in every major conflict,” said Adm. Michael Rogers, former head of the US Cyber ​​​​Command and director of the National Security Agency. “What makes this unusual is that, in this case, the commercial supplier entered the field directly.”

The US government owns wireless communications rights, through its own satellites and partnerships with prominent commercial providers including Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat, and Knight Sky. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Nov. 1 that the agency is in talks with “SpaceX and others” about Ukraine’s satellite internet requirements but declined to provide further details.

But the United States, unlike SpaceX, can supply Ukraine with other things it needs beyond the general range—like anti-tank missiles and long-range missiles.

“It’s not a question to me if the roads are empty – but in some ways to me it shows the situation,” Rogers said. “If you look at the support provided by the United States, the ability to communicate, I believe, is one of the first areas that the US provided additional support.”

Starlink stepped in to fill the gap as it presented a path of deterrence for all parties involved, considering the enormous burden of war on military supplies. of America and NATO. The introduction of the company allowed the United States to provide other types of military assistance (a small part of which was satellite communications) “instead of providing resources that are too little and need too much for your our own soldiers,” Rogers added.

The big question now is what to do next. Rogers said the immediate focus for the U.S. and Ukrainian governments is on keeping Ukraine’s access to Starlink service, but said the current situation could also lead to discussions on how to build one. general military procurement activities that are predictable and sustainable in the future.

“The commercial sector has been developing these amazing capabilities before governments were watching but now they are available for sale to any user—commercial or government—if you’re willing to pay,” he said. . “So the government needs to think carefully about how to create a mechanism to quickly bring that kind of capacity online when they need it and how to sustain it over time.”

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.


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