Elon Musk's Starlink internet becomes a lifeline for Ukrainians

Elon Musk’s Starlink internet becomes a lifeline for Ukrainians

Parts of war-torn Ukraine with little or no internet service have found an alternative: emergency Starlink receivers.

The SpaceX-run satellite internet service that CEO Elon Musk touted at the start of the war has become a lifeline for many parts of the country, with more than 10,000 satellite dishes in use and more on the way.

“It’s not an ideal internet,” said Dmytro Zinchuk, head of network operations at internet service provider Freenet, which mainly serves the region around kyiv and western and northern Ukraine. “But when there is no connection at all, Starlink is just a salvation for people who have been without a connection for many weeks.”

He said his company has so far integrated five government-donated Starlink terminals in its mad rush to get as many customers back online as possible in areas that have come under heavy Russian bombardment. This may mean connecting hundreds of people to a terminal intended for a single household.

Starlink satellite internet systems are coming to Ukraine. Serhiy Prytula Charitable Foundation

“We are well aware that Starlink is not really created for this, but we have managed to launch over 150 subscribers on one Starlink,” Zinchuk said in an interview on messaging app Telegram.

Most basic Starlink kits donated to Ukraine include a 23-inch-wide satellite dish that must be mounted outdoors and a cord that connects to a simple router that projects a Wi-Fi internet signal (most use a circular parabolic antenna but some of the newer ones are rectangular). Internet speeds vary, but Kyiv Starlink enthusiast Oleg Kutkov said in a phone interview that he often gets download speeds of 200 megabits per second – fast enough for most, if not all. , Internet use at home. Americans typically pay $110 per month for the service.

Starlink relies on signals transmitted to and from a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, unlike competitors whose satellites orbit the planet at much higher altitudes. This generally leads to faster and more reliable service, although NASA has warned that more Starlink satellites could interfere with its asteroid monitoring mission.

Andrii Nabook, a senior official with Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, a government agency with a broad mandate on technology issues, said in a Facebook Messenger interview that his office had donated around 200 receivers to vendors. locals since the beginning of the war. He and his team traveled to the town of Chernihiv, north of kyiv, in early April after the withdrawal of Russian forces, to install the satellite dishes.

The ministry has also donated Starlink receivers to schools, hospitals, village governments and fire departments, a spokesperson said in an email.

After Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, tweeted an open request in late February for Musk to send receivers, Musk tweeted what the company would do.

Satellite internet has been around for decades, but it’s typically used by the military or as a last resort for rural areas that struggle to get reliable broadband connections. But in recent years, the rise of the space industry has opened the door to orbital constellations of small satellites capable of delivering services, including Starlink and a competing Amazon service, Project Kuiper.

Damage to infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
Damage to infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.Courtesy of Andrii Nabok

In Ukraine, Starlink’s technology has found a place where it can prove itself, especially when used in ways other than intended. Throughout its invasion, Russia constantly attacked Ukraine’s communications infrastructure with military weapons and cyberattacks.

Michael Schwille, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said a number of factors work in favor of Starlink, including its ease of use and relatively high speeds, ability to defend against jamming attacks from the signal, a US program to ship thousands of receivers to Ukraine, and the fact that the company waived its large user fees for Ukrainians.

“When you destroy all the connective fiber optic cables that connect cities and blow up all the cell phone towers, you quickly isolate communications in a given area,” he said in a phone interview. . “With the distribution of these satellites, the Ukrainians are installing these stations in places that have been disturbed. And now they can text and call loved ones and know they’re okay.

In an April 19 Telegram post, Fedorov said 10,000 Starlink terminals were operational in the country. He also has tweeted Wednesday that Starlink had registered an office in Ukraine.

Terminals come from a hodgepodge of sources. A spokesperson for the US Agency for International Development said it spent about $800,000 delivering 5,175 to the Ukrainian government – it bought about a quarter and Starlink donated the rest – plus 175 others to others in the country. The Polish oil company PKN Orlen has donated, but the company did not respond to questions about the number. Nabook, the head of Ukraine’s digital transformation ministry, said his agency had received Starlink donations from several European Union allies, though he declined to say from which countries or how many terminals.

Bringing them into the country is a whole other challenge. Maria Pysarenko, spokeswoman for the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, a nonprofit group led by a former political rival of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said he had brought in about 20 Starlinks through a relatively secretive process.

“You can’t buy them in bulk or send them directly to Ukraine,” she said. “So one of our volunteers, who has a good network of contacts in the United States, asks different people to search and buy Starlinks separately, one by one. Then they send them individually to Poland There, others of his good acquaintances pick up all the Starlinks and send them to Lviv in our logistics center, and from there the boxes leave for kyiv.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Starlink has certain limitations.

Most commercial satellite internet receivers broadcast a signal that can be easily geotagged with widely available technology, said Frank Backes, senior vice president of Kratos, a military contractor, and president of Space ISAC, a nonprofit group. which shares information on cybersecurity threats to the space industry. This can make a Starlink user in a contested area vulnerable to attack.

And Starlink equipment may be directly damaged.

Victor Zhora, a senior Ukrainian cybersecurity official, told a press conference on Wednesday that a handful of Starlink units had been damaged by Russian bombing, although it was unclear whether it was. were specific targets. And like terrestrial Internet infrastructure, satellite Internet service also relies on computers that are vulnerable to hackers.

Early in the invasion, in one of the most destructive cyberattacks of the war, hackers remotely wiped out the satellite modems that served the Eastern European customers of satellite internet company Viasat. Zhora previously told reporters that Russia was responsible for the hack and that it had a significant impact on Ukrainian military communications at the start of the fighting.

But when Starlink devices in Ukraine came under an electromagnetic attack in March, they fared significantly better, US military officials told a conference last week. Engineers were able to quickly write and deploy a software patch to the receivers, which mitigated the attack, said Kevin Coggins, who leads Booz Allen Hamilton’s Positioning, Navigation and Timing Service and is a member of Space ISAC. .

“You must have a way to distribute [the software update] to user terminals that you cannot physically touch, which SpaceX was able to do,” he said. “It’s not normal for space systems to be able to do that,” he said.

“It’s phenomenal what SpaceX has done,” Coggins said.

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