Why Elon Musk is the Go-To Internet Provider

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. On February 26, two days after Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov chirp At 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 supply Starlink terminals to Ukraine,” he added.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites scattered 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, with costs starting at $110 per month. The hardware used to connect to it, small satellite dishes that the company calls terminals, are priced at $599 and up. Starlink satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO) — 1,200 miles from the Earth’s surface — much closer than the geosynchronous satellites deployed by competing Internet companies. This means that it takes less time to transfer data from stations on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.

Musk responded to Fedorov’s tweet the same day, informing him that Starlink’s service was “now active in Ukraine,” stating that its satellites would begin sending internet to the country, and pledging to send more terminals. More than eight months later, Starlink has played a vital role in keeping Ukraine’s military and citizens online as war continues to rage and Russia targets Ukraine’s telecommunications and electrical infrastructure.

“It was the beginning of a great story, because Starlink technologies changed this war,” Fedorov told the audience at the Web Summit in Lisbon in early November. Not only did satellite internet keep Ukrainian citizens and businesses online, but it was also important to the war effort, helping troops communicate with each other on the battlefield and even enabling drones and weapons systems to keep functioning.

But Starlink’s centrality to Ukraine’s war effort raises the question of why the US government did not provide this service, when it provided Ukraine. More than $20 billion So far in the army and Humanitarian aid. Is Ukraine’s dependence on one company — effectively one man — to stay online in the midst of war a good thing, after all?

Starlink has a lot of advantages over other communication systems than low orbit satellites. Its stations are also smaller and easier to set up than the typical satellite dish required for communication.

“It’s about the size of an average pizza box,” said Andrew Cavalier, an analyst at technology intelligence firm ABI Research that focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. This facilitates their deployment in wartime, but also, he said, “having smaller stations means, logistically speaking, more stations, and better coverage between the ground and the air.”

There are companies working on similar LEO connections, including UK-based OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper (funded by fellow billionaire Musk Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese companies GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But Cavaliere said these companies are still in various stages of starting commercial operations, giving Musk and Starlink a head start for their use in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Olga Stefanyshina, said Starlink had played a crucial role in helping Ukraine mount its defense against a Russian invasion, particularly in the early days of the war. “Our government has been able to function because I put Starlink over my head,” she said. “This was a turning point in our survival.”

But Musk’s Ukrainian internet isn’t all charitable. According to multiple reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine were paid for at least in part by the United States, United Kingdom, and Poland. A Polish government spokesperson confirmed that Poland paid about $5.9 million for Starlink’s services, with support from Polish state companies.

Washington has already paid for a small portion of the Starlink stations in Ukraine. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1,508 terminal stations in March for a total of $3 million, according to a USAID spokesperson. The agency also delivered an additional 3,667 stations donated by SpaceX, with the company paying for internet service for all the stations.

“USAID purchased the Starlink stations, but did not pay for Starlink’s service,” the spokesperson said. “Like many carrier markets, the most important cost factor is not the device itself, but the service that SpaceX offers free to all devices.”

SpaceX, the US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for additional comment regarding Starlink funding. musk chirp In mid-October, less than half of the 25,300 Starlink stations in Ukraine were paying for the service.

But concerns remain about putting all of Ukraine’s wartime communications needs into one mercurial basket; A sudden outage can be devastating. It happened in late October, when 1300 Starlink station went offline, due to a lack of funding. As a result, the Ukrainian military suffered a communications outage, a few weeks after SpaceX I sent a message to the Pentagon saying it could no longer continue funding Ukrainian satellite services and asking the Pentagon to foot the bill.

Musk later retracted those demands, Twitter that Starlink “will continue to fund Ukraine … for free” and after that SpaceX got “Withdraw the funding request“, although negotiations between the company and the US government continue.

Speaking to reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 19, Stefanyshina said Musk had assured her government that he would continue funding Starlink in Ukraine. We have a Twitter guarantee from Elon Musk when he confirmed he would fund [Starlink]And speak to our Minister of Digital Transformation. So we consider it a bargain.

But Stefanichina also expressed doubts about how committed the billionaire is to honoring those deals, given his tendency to lurch suddenly between new business ventures and back out of major deals in the past. And Ukraine is making plans to supplement Starlink with other systems, she said, just in case Musk pulls out of that deal as well.

“Given this huge range of instability in the SpaceX CEO position from willingness to then unwillingness to continue financial support, we’re doing contingency planning for ourselves,” she said. Satellite companies operating from geosynchronous orbit can serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says it does already supported by connecting refugees in neighboring Slovakia), but building and maintaining the infrastructure to provide these connections is likely to be more challenging than Starlink’s experience.

“From a business perspective, what Starlink has is unique in the market right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, adding that US military communications are usually built and designed for more specificity. purposes and thus have a narrower application.

“The US military will have different requirements and needs than purely civilian applications,” he said in an email. “Starlink is kind of general purpose. … It’s more user-friendly for someone like Ukraine — it’s out there, it’s already a commercial product, so it’s easier,” he added.

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

“From [Ukraine’s] From a point of view, diversifying their network infrastructure is probably a better idea…if only because if Elon Musk decides he doesn’t want to provide connectivity anymore on a whim, they’ll be completely cut off,” Cavalier said.

Although Musk has a higher profile than most CEOs — especially after his acquisition of Twitter — the involvement of private companies in military conflicts is not new, nor are disagreements over who will pay for those services. But the Pentagon usually deals with traditional military contractors, not the eccentric billionaires floating around Russian talking points Amidst the existential struggle in Ukraine.

“It is not uncommon for other contractors to have friction with the US government,” Metric said. The difference here is that Musk is not “the CEO of a more traditional military contractor.”

And Starlink fought the war in a unique way, too.

We often go to the commercial sector to get additional access to spaceborne communications. “We’ve done this in literally every major conflict,” said retired Admiral Michael Rogers, former head of US Cyber ​​Command and director of the National Security Agency. “What made this unusual was, in this case, the commercial provider entering the field directly.”

The US government has radio communications capabilities, both through private satellites And through partnerships with prominent commercial service providers Including Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat and Knight Sky. Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said on November 1 that the department is in talks with “SpaceX and others” about satellite internet requirements in Ukraine, but declined to share more details.

But the United States, unlike SpaceX, could offer Ukraine other things it needs outside of broadband — like anti-tank missiles or long-range artillery.

“It’s not a question for me if it’s a lack of alternatives — rather, it somehow reflects the situation for me,” said Rogers. “If you look at the support that the United States has been providing, the significant communications capacity was not, I think, one of the initial core areas where the United States was providing additional support.”

Starlink stepped in to fill the void when it would have offered the path of least resistance for all parties involved, given the amount of stress the conflict has placed on the US and NATO. military stocks. The company’s intervention may have allowed the United States to provide other types of military assistance (including satellite communications only Small portion“Without allocating very limited resources, we have a huge demand for them in our 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 preserving Ukraine’s access to Starlink’s service, but added that the current situation is also likely to spark conversations about how to make full-spectrum military procurement predictable and sustainable in the future.

“The commercial sector is developing these amazing capabilities that have historically been largely within the purview of governments but are now commercially available to any user – commercial or government – if you are willing to pay for it,” he said. “So the government has to figure out how to create mechanisms so that they can very quickly bring that kind of capability online when they need it and how to sustain it over time.”

Robby Grammer contributed to this report.

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