Why is Elon Musk an Internet provider?

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. On February 26, two days after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. on Twitter to the richest man in the world.

“While your missiles are successfully landing from space, Russian missiles are attacking Ukrainian civilians.” Fedorov wrote: “We ask you to provide Starlink stations to Ukraine,” he added.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites that have been deployed relatively close to Earth’s surface through a series of rocket launches since mid-2019 by parent company SpaceX. The company’s Internet services are available to individuals, businesses and even airlines, starting at $110 per month. The hardware used to connect them, small satellite dishes the company calls terminals, cost $599 and up. Starlink’s satellites operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface, much closer than the geosynchronous satellites deployed by rival companies that provide Internet connectivity. That means it takes less time for data to travel from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.

Musk responded to Fedorov’s tweet later that day, informing him that Starlink’s service was “now live in Ukraine,” stating that its satellites would begin transmitting Internet to the country and promising to send more terminals. More than eight months later, Starlink has played a vital role in keeping Ukraine’s armed forces and citizens online as the war continues to rage and Russia targets Ukraine’s telecommunications and electricity infrastructure.

“It was the beginning of a great story because Starlink technology changed this war,” Fedorov told an audience at the Web Summit in Lisbon in early November. Satellite Internet service has not only kept Ukrainian citizens and businesses online, but has also been critical to the war, helping troops communicate with each other on the battlefield and even enabling drones and weapons systems to operate.

But the centrality of Starlink to Ukraine’s war effort raises the question of why the US government did not provide this service when it did to Ukraine. more than $20 billion so far military and humanitarian aid. Is Ukraine’s dependence on one company, in fact, one person, staying online in the middle of a war a good thing?

Starlink has many advantages over other communications systems beyond lower-orbit satellites. Its terminals are also smaller and easier to install than the typical satellite dish required to connect.

“They’re about the size of an average pizza box,” said Andrew Cavaliere, an analyst at ABI Research, a technology intelligence firm who focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. This makes them easier to deploy in a wartime environment, but also, he said, “having smaller terminals, logistically, means more terminals, better coverage between land and air.”

There are companies working on similar LEO communications, including Britain’s OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper (funded by Musk’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos), as well as China’s GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But those companies are still in various stages of commercialization, Cavaliere said, giving Musk and Starlink a head start that its use in the Russia-Ukraine war will only strengthen.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanyshina said Starlink played a crucial role in helping to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion, especially in the early days of the war. “Our government has been able to function because I had Starlink above my head,” he said. “This has been a turning point in our survival.”

But Musk’s Ukrainian Internet isn’t all charity. According to multiple reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine were at least partially funded by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. A Polish government spokesman confirmed that Poland paid about $5.9 million for Starlink services with the support of Polish state-owned enterprises.

Washington has already paid for a small part of Ukraine’s Starlink terminals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) bought 1,508 terminals in March for a total of $3 million, according to a USAID representative. The agency also delivered an additional 3,667 terminals donated by SpaceX, with the company paying for Internet service for all terminals.

“USAID has purchased Starlink terminals but has not paid for Starlink service,” the spokesperson said. “Like many mobile network markets, the most important cost factor is not the device, but the service that SpaceX offers for free for all devices.”

SpaceX, the US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for further comment on the Starlink funding. Musk on Twitter in mid-October, less than half of Ukraine’s 25,300 Starlink terminals were paying for the service.

But concern remains about Ukraine putting all of its wartime communications needs into one quicksilver basket. a sudden shutdown can be devastating. It happened at the end of October, when 1300 Starlink terminals went offline, reportedly due to a lack of funding. The Ukrainian military has had a communications failure since just weeks after SpaceX sent an email Telling the Pentagon that it could no longer continue to fund Ukraine’s satellite services and asked the Pentagon to foot the bill.

Musk later dropped those claims. in a tweet that Starlink would “continue to fund Ukraine…for free,” and subsequently SpaceX had “withdrew its funding request,” although negotiations between the company and the US government reportedly continued.

Stefanishina also told reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 19 that Musk had confirmed to his government that he would continue to fund Starlink in Ukraine. “We have Elon Musk’s assurance on Twitter when he confirmed he was going to fund [Starlink], and he spoke with our Minister of Digital Transformation. So we consider it a deal,” he said.

But Stefanishina also expressed doubts about how committed the billionaire tycoon would be to honoring those deals, given his tendency to suddenly jump between new business ventures and backtrack on big past deals. He said that Ukraine plans to supplement Starlink with other systems, only if Musk also pulls out of this deal.

“Given this huge range of volatility in the role of CEO of SpaceX, from willingness and then to unwillingness to continue financial support, we are doing contingency planning for ourselves,” he said. Satellite companies operating from geosynchronous orbit could potentially serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says: already supported country, connecting refugees in neighboring Slovakia), but building and maintaining the infrastructure to provide those connections will likely be more onerous than the Starlink experiment.

“From a commercial perspective, what Starlink has is unique in the market right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a defense program fellow at the Center for a New American Security, adding that US military communications are typically built and designed for a more specific purpose. objectives and therefore have a narrower applicability.

“The US military will have requirements and needs that differ from purely civilian applications,” he said in an email. “Starlink is kind of a general purpose. … It’s easier to use for someone like Ukraine. it’s on top, it’s already a commercial product, and it’s easier,” he added.

However, having more options can be worth the heavy lifting.

“Starting [Ukraine’s] From a perspective, diversifying their network infrastructure is probably a better idea … just because if Elon Musk decides he no longer wants to provide connectivity on a whim, they’re completely disconnected,” Cavaliere said.

While Musk has a higher profile than most CEOs, especially since his acquisition of Twitter, the involvement of private companies in military conflicts is nothing new, nor are fights over who will pay for those services. But the Pentagon usually deals with traditional military contractors, not eccentric billionaires who talk to Russians in the middle of Russia’s existential struggle.

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

And Starlink also went to war in a unique way.

“We often go to the commercial sector to get additional space connectivity access. We’ve done that in literally every significant conflict,” said retired Admiral Michael Rogers, former head of US Cyber ​​Command and director of the National Security Agency. “This made it unusual for a commercial supplier to go directly into the field in this case.”

The US government has wireless capabilities like through its own own satellites and through celebrity collaborations commercial suppliers 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 share further details.

But the United States, unlike SpaceX, can offer Ukraine other things it needs beyond broadband, such as anti-tank missiles or long-range artillery.

“For me, it’s not a question of whether it’s a lack of alternatives, it’s more of a reflection of the situation for me in some ways,” Rogers said. “If you look at the support that the United States has provided, I don’t think significant communications capabilities were one of the primary areas where the United States provided additional support.”

Starlink, which stepped in to fill the gap when it did, could represent the path of least resistance for all parties involved, given how strained the conflict is on US and NATO military assets. The company’s involvement could have allowed the United States to provide other types of military assistance (of which satellite communications alone small share) “without limiting the resources we have in great demand in our own military,” Rogers added.

The big question now is what happens next. Rogers said the immediate focus of the U.S. and Ukrainian governments remains simply maintaining Ukraine’s access to Starlink services, but added that the current situation will likely also prompt conversations about how to make the entire military procurement process predictable and sustainable in the future. spectrum process.

“The commercial sector is developing these amazing capabilities that historically belonged mainly to governments, but are now commercially available to any user, commercial or government, if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. “So the government needs to figure out how to create mechanisms so that they can bring this kind of capability to the Internet very quickly when they need it, and how to maintain it over time.”

Robbie Grammer contributed to this report.

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