A month ago this week, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Watching the course of the invasion almost live, the world was quick to express its solidarity with the Ukrainian people. One of the best examples of this support is the quick response of SpaceX in reply to an urgent request by the Ukrainian government.
Bring in SpaceX Starlink
SpaceX’s Starlink is a global satellite system providing high-speed Internet coverage in places where the terrestrial internet connection is unstable, expensive to install, or not available at all.
The first batch of Starlink equipment from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was delivered to Ukraine at the end of February. Shortly before this, the Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, asked Elon Musk on Twitter “to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand”.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, said that the company had been working for weeks to secure approval for Starlink services in Ukraine. SpaceX had already been waiting for a letter granting landing rights, even before the Russian invasion. The Minister’s tweet sort of reflected this expedited permission.
Bringing internet to where it is needed most
On March 5, the first Starlink terminals arrived in the Ukrainian capital. In his Facebook feed, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that “Starlink will work to help ensure the critical infrastructure of the city and the defense of the capital”.
Elon Musk’s Twitter opponent, also known as his competitor in the “new space race”, the director of Russian space agency Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin, reacted emotionally to the cooperation of SpaceX with the Ukrainian government. On March 2, on his Telegram channel, Mr. Rogozin shared a video from the Russian state-owned television network Russia Today (RT). In this video, Rogozin assesses Musk’s activities about Ukraine:
“The SpaceX company, the Starlink company, is an internet distributor. We were told fairy tales earlier that Musk is doing this to cover the 6% of the Earth which is not covered by terrestrial internet fibre optic cables with internet from space. The clash between Russia and the West began when Russia realised its national interests on the territory of Ukraine, which the West used today as a springboard for attacking us and our citizens. And then Mr. Musk showed up with his Starlink subscriber equipment, which had previously been declared to be purely civilian.
This is the mug, you understand […], which was opened, which I spoke about, by the way! But Musk lovers have been saying: “God, what does Rogozin say! Unacceptable things! He [Elon Musk] is the beacon of world cosmonautics”. And this beacon [Elon Musk] has chosen a side [which he supports]. In principle, it’s okay, I don’t even have any complaints against him [Elon Musk]. It’s obvious, this is the West, whom we should never trust. Because it [the West] has always chronically experienced hatred, I mean political elites, hatred for our country. It has been for centuries, and it is always hidden. See how now they are [the west] vying to overtake each other, trying to spoil our relationship. Who then will clear all this, all this rubble? It’s very dangerous, what’s happening now”
On March 5, Elon Musk tweeted that “Starlink has been told by some governments (not Ukraine) to block Russian news sources. We will not do so unless at gunpoint”.
Elon Musk explains this by being a free speech absolutist.
Suppressing propaganda is not the task of the satellite constellation in Ukraine. The State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine has said that Starlink satellite Internet will be used for civilian and military purposes.
Internet from space is not for anyone, or is it?
Once the first batches of Starlink terminals arrived in Ukraine there were rumours that anyone could connect to this satellite-based internet connection. But as the Ukrainian authorities repeatedly emphasised, the satellite internet system only worked at strategic facilities, within short range of the Starlink terminals.
There are some workarounds though, requiring some slightly advanced skills, and of course the right equipment. A programmer from Kyiv, Oleg Kutkov, managed to test the Internet from Elon Musk in the capital of Ukraine.
Mr. Kutkov purchased Starlink equipment a few months earlier, but could not use it, since the Starlink satellite access had not been turned on in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Mr. Kutkov experimented with the equipment and now got it to work. Being a programmer from Kyiv, he showed that if you have the right equipment, it is possible to connect to high-speed satellite Internet from SpaceX.
As stated in a March 3 publication in the Ukrainian edition of “Сегодня” (“Today”) Mr. Kutkov noted that it may not be safe to use Elon Musk’s antennas at present. There is a possibility that transmissions between ground receivers and satellites can become beacons for airstrikes.
Most downloaded app in Ukraine
Nevertheless, Starlink has become the most downloaded application in Ukraine, according to Mykhailo Fedorov in his Telegram channel: “The app was downloaded 21,000 times in a week worldwide in both the App Store and Google Play. This is the largest number of downloads in the world in one day. Most of these downloads came from Ukraine.”
“In total, the application has already been downloaded almost 100,000 times in Ukraine, and the number of installations in the world has more than tripled in the last two weeks”.
Where is internet needed?
The procedure for connecting Ukraine to Starlink satellite Internet is well explained in an interview to Ukrainian edition “Канал 24” (Сhannell 24), by the head of Electronic Services Development at the Ministry of Digital Development, Mstislav Banik:
“StarLink is now distributed where it is most needed:
- in the public sector, where they are needed,
- in the medical field,
- sometimes for the media and so on.
We use it wherever it is necessary to have uninterrupted access to the internet, wherever we think it is most important”
Mr. Banik added that Starlink terminals are currently installed in places where there is no internet due to hostilities. For security reasons he cannot disclose the list of places where they are installed. The interview was published on 18 March 2022.
On March, 18, the Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, shared in his Instagram a photo of a new batch of satellite terminals:
“…While Russia is blocking Internet platforms, Ukraine is increasingly open to the world. Because the truth is behind us. And the truth always wins…”
Groundstation supports Ukraine
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Featured image credit: Twitter @DanielObajtek