Elon Musk sent Starlink satellite internet service to Ukraine. It seems useful.
When war broke out in Ukraine, the country faced threats of Russian cyberattacks and bombings that could knock out the internet, necessitating a backup plan. So the country’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a direct appeal to Musk urging him to send help. Musk replied a few hours later: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals along the way.
Ukraine has already received thousands of antennas from Musk’s companies and his European allies, which have proven “very effective,” Fedorov said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday.
“The link quality is excellent,” Fedorov said through a translator, using a Starlink connection from an undisclosed location. “We use thousands, in the area of thousands, of terminals with new shipments arriving every other day.”
Using Starlink as a stopgap measure to keep citizens and government connected during an invasion is a major test of the relatively new technology, experts say, and could have far-reaching implications for the future of warfare. The Internet has become an essential tool for communicating, obtaining information and even supplying weapons.
It’s also a test for Musk. The richest man in the world, valued at 232 billion dollars according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, is making a habit of turning to Twitter for brash promises and proclamations amid global crises. Already this week, the CEO of Tesla challenged Putin to a fight and went on to promise that he would use one hand if Putin was scared. And he told Putin he could bring a bear.
But this time, Fedorov and some experts say he got away with it. Tesla employees in Europe would have been assembled systems to help power Starlink in Ukraine, and Fedorov said other European countries have sent Starlink equipment from their own supplies.
Musk responded to a request for comment on his efforts with Starlink and his past endeavors, telling The Post to salute “your puppeteer Besos😘😘.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Musk did not respond to a follow-up request specifically about his work with Starlink in Ukraine.
SpaceX declined to comment on its work in Ukraine.
Internet outages can be caused by power outages or severed fiber optic cables following bombings, experts said. Starlink technology is used by civilians in attacked areas who have lost internet service, and by government officials. Starlink terminals were also provided to help the country’s tech companies stay online when the war forced them to relocate. The Times of London reports that a Ukrainian unit uses Starlink to connect its drones attacking Russian forces.
Starlink has grown rapidly in recent years, overtaking some satellite internet competitors by launching more than 1,000 satellites into space. People can purchase the service online for $99 a month, plus $499 for equipment, but Starlink warns shipping can take six months or more in some cases.
A person familiar with Starlink’s efforts in Ukraine, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there were more than 5,000 endpoints in the country.
Still, experts said even a large Starlink network probably wouldn’t be powerful enough to keep an entire country online and running at full speed. But endpoints can serve as a reliable backup in the event that Internet services fail. Fedorov said he and his team are having discussions with other European leaders and companies about additional satellite and cellular technologies that could help keep Ukrainians online in the event of larger internet outages.
@Elon Musk, while you are trying to colonize Mars — Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets are successfully landing from space, Russian rockets are attacking Ukrainian civilians! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and call on sane Russians to stand up.
— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) February 26, 2022
Internet flows deteriorated on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and have not fully recovered, according to data monitoring services. But since that initial dip, connectivity has remained fairly stable, with mostly temporary and isolated outages, even during heavy Russian bombardment.
“Every day there are outages, but usually service comes back,” said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics for Kentik, which monitors global data feeds.
Even before Fedorov tweeted at Musk for help, SpaceX was working on a way to bring Starlink to Ukraine. Chairman and COO Gwynne Shotwell told a conference at the California Institute of Technology this month that the company had been working for several weeks to get regulatory approval to allow satellites to communicate in Ukraine.
Fedorov’s agency is working to bring Starlink terminals to areas where internet access has been cut off, he said. The systems have in some cases been used to connect people when the country’s cellular networks have been overloaded.
Fedorov said he briefly texted Musk and the tech billionaire also had a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Certain concerns accompany the use of terminals. Like all satellite communications during the war, Starlink signals could be used to detect the location of antennas, experts say.
While it’s unclear whether Russia can use the signals to target attacks, Musk advised caution on Twitter.
“Important disclaimer: Starlink is the only non-Russian communication system still functioning in parts of Ukraine, so the likelihood of being targeted is high,” he tweeted. He added that users should only turn on the device when needed and keep it away from people.
Experts have warned that the devices could reveal Ukrainians’ locations to Russian attackers, but that hasn’t been a problem so far, Fedorov said. The devices were typically used in “densely populated areas where there would be lots of civilians anyway”.
He said Russian cyberattacks have not yet intensified on the systems.
“They seem very busy right now attacking the websites of our small towns and villages,” Fedorov said. “I think they’re just not there yet.”
Some Starlink terminals near conflict zones were blocked for several hours at a time. Our latest software update bypasses the jamming.
I’m curious to see what’s next!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 5, 2022
Because Starlink is still relatively new, there’s a lot to understand about how and if it can be used in conflict zones, say defense and space industry experts.
“The answer is that it’s potentially useful, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Brian Weeden, program planning director for space sustainability at nonprofit Secure World Foundation, noting the risk of cyberattacks and what exactly are the needs.
The Russians, along with many others, have technology capable of finding, jamming, and sometimes intercepting many types of transmissions. Starlink’s technology could be a target of those efforts, said John Scott-Railton, principal investigator at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
“But I think it’s really important that people in Ukraine and in areas without connectivity are connected, so it’s a matter of understanding and balancing the risks,” he said.
In kyiv, a Ukrainian engineer saw the Twitter exchanges between Fedorov and Musk and rushed to piece together a Starlink terminal he had purchased months earlier. Oleg Kutkov said that he bought a terminal just to take it apart and put it back together – as an engineer, he was curious to see how it worked.
But now that Starlink services are activated in the country, it might actually come in handy, he said. His regular internet service is still working, but he put the Starlink antenna out the window and turned it on to test, he said. The speed was really fast.
“Internet connection is really important here in Ukraine,” Kutkov said. “We get a lot of information from social media, from the government and from each other.” Kutkov received so many questions from his fellow Ukrainians about Starlink that he created a Facebook group to answer them. Today it has 370 members.
Christian Davenport, Craig Timberg and Joseph Menn contributed to this report.