In Ukraine, Elon Musk’s Starlink finally found its right place, right time

As Russian bombs fell on his home city of Kyiv, Glib Kotelnitskiy was in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine, hastily camouflaging an internet satellite dish he’d gotten his hands on through an old tango dance acquaintance. It was early March, and Elon Musk had days earlier tweeted that he was deploying Starlink, his company SpaceX’s satellite internet venture, to help keep Ukraine online. 

Starlink promises high-speed internet to remote locations where access is anywhere from unreliable to entirely unavailable. Kotelnitskiy had low expectations, but moved fast to get the dish up and running; his fleeing colleagues and their families were dependent on it, for income and news about their besieged hometown. 

Starlink’s speed was “no different” to fiber, Kotelnitskiy told Rest of World, running at up to 200 megabits per second, with a ping response of 50 milliseconds. Compared to the inconvenience of an internet black hole, he shrugged off warnings that the signal could be detectable by Russian forces. “We are quite far,” he said. “I’m not sure those fears are rational.”

Across Ukraine, Starlink terminals donated by Musk have been set up on hospitals, energy companies, and other critical infrastructure. In the western part of the country, where the population has doubled in recent weeks as people fled from the Russian advance, Starlink has helped take pressure off the overloaded internet infrastructure, Kotelnitskiy believes. Alongside the local telecommunications services and their technicians who have kept Ukrainians connected, even under airstrikes, Starlink has helped back up essential services and come to the aid of citizens struggling with partial outages. Some Ukrainian units told the Times of London that they’ve even used Starlink to support drone strikes and other attacks.

It’s a positive step for a service that has lacked a clear use case, and fallen short of multiple market launches during its almost three years of operation, experts told Rest of World

Commercially, “it’s only going to serve one particular market niche,” Edward Oughton, an assistant professor at George Mason University who has studied Starlink, told Rest of World. Starlink is an important new tool, he said, but one with selective applications. “That [niche] is basically the most remote and rural premises across the world.”

Still, Starlink’s emergency relief efforts in Ukraine have undoubtedly raised its profile, said Jose Del Rosario, a consultant at satellite industry firm Northern Sky Research. Quick deployability and reliability have made satellites useful in emergency situations for decades, and in Ukraine, these also worked to Starlink’s advantage, he said. And the downlink terminals are designed to be set up by users at home using Starlink’s app.

“If Starlink services can operate in harsh environments during emergency and war situations, it can adequately do so as well, or more easily, for supporting commercial, consumer, and enterprise requirements in normal or peaceful situations,” Del Rosario told Rest of World

SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When there are high-profile internet outages, whether deliberate or accidental, tweets fly about whether the SpaceX and Tesla founder’s satellite service might offer a solution to gaps in the internet. Starlink is one of several initiatives, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper and SoftBank-backed OneWeb, that aims to make the internet more accessible by beaming it out via satellites that orbit close to earth. Backers believe that a lower constellation of satellites can deliver faster internet than traditional, higher-orbiting geostationary satellites, and cover remote areas that lack good communications infrastructure.

Apart from an ambitious promise by Musk to connect the unconnected, Starlink’s main use case hasn’t been clear. On the eve of its official launch in May 2019, Musk declared the system would be a revenue driver for SpaceX, generating income to be funneled toward advanced rockets and Mars landings. By September the same year, Starlink satellites would have global coverage, aiming to bring online the most remote 5% of the world’s population, he said. Starlink has 1,469 active satellites in orbit as of January. That’s just over a quarter of the 4,408 satellites that it’s been authorized for, and a fraction of the 30,000 that Musk has said is his ultimate goal.

Since launch, that traffic has grown to a scattered base of around 100,000 rural users mainly in remote areas of the U.S. and Europe, according to Musk. The service passed more than half a million pre-orders last year, but its launch in potentially significant markets, including India and South Africa, has been repeatedly pushed back. 

In late February, Musk agreed to send Starlink terminals to Ukraine, prompted by an appeal on Twitter by Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation. There, experts and users on the ground agree that Starlink has delivered what it promised. But they also point out that much of that is due to the highly targeted way it has been deployed. 

Four days after the invasion began and two days after Fedorov’s request, Starlink shipped an initial truckload of terminals into Ukraine; three weeks later, around 5,000 terminals had arrived. Though it looked instantaneous, SpaceX had already been working for around six weeks to lay the foundation for commercial Starlink services in the country. For now, Starlink will be free for all Ukrainians, aside from the cost of the hardware, SpaceX has announced. (For its customers more widely, Starlink has hiked the price of both the terminals and monthly fees, citing inflation.) 

In the weeks since the Starlink service has been available in Ukraine, daily downloads of the app have surged globally, from just under 11,000 per day on February 27 to over 368,000 a month later, according to data from Apptopia. Nearly two thirds of those downloads have been located in Ukraine.

Oleg Kutkov, a software engineer in Kyiv, already had a Starlink dish when the invasion began, so he started an ad hoc Facebook group to help others learn more about getting connected to the service. Independent and reliable connections are not only important for government and military facilities, but are needed to operate almost everything, Kutkov told Rest of World.  

“Everything in Ukraine is online,” said Kutkov, who has been waking up to nearby bombings at five in the morning. “Connectivity is crucial.”

Experts, and even Musk himself, have warned that the satellite signal could be used by Russia to determine the location of Ukrainian Starlink users. This could limit their use by government officials, who might be targets, and means that the terminals are mostly being used on public infrastructure whose location is already well-known.

Still, the system is only a backup for certain parts of the internet in Ukraine. No satellite service is capable of backing up peak internet traffic for an entire country the size of Ukraine, which TeleGeography estimated consumed 12 terabits per second of internet traffic at the end of last year, experts told Rest of World. A 2021 study at MIT found that Starlink’s constellation maxed out at 10 terabits. 

It’s a stark contrast to January this year, when a volcanic eruption shook the Pacific nation of Tonga and severed its only international internet cable. Musk’s Starlink terminals were sent in to reconnect the country. But it wasn’t Starlink that got Tonga back online after weeks without internet. Instead, a repair ship sailed more than eight days with replacement parts from Papua New Guinea and painstakingly pieced together 90 kilometers of undersea cable faster than Musk’s satellites could get service to the country. It’s still hard to tell how much service the terminals are actually providing, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at network monitoring firm Kentik. 

Tonga Cable CEO Semisi Panuve told Rest of World that of the 50 Starlink terminals sent to Tonga, five have been given to each of the two local telecommunications companies, Digicel and Tonga Communications Corporation. These are augmenting service in outer islands like Ha’apai and Vava’u, which remain dependent on satellite connectivity for the next few months while the domestic cable is being repaired. “Tonga Cable received one terminal to trial,” said Panuve, “but we haven’t been able to find a way to integrate it into our service offering for general or public use.”

To observers, the event underscored that despite the social media hype, Starlink has so far occupied a niche position in the global market for delivering internet access. “Everyone wants to talk about Starlink, but there are a lot of potential answers,” said Tim Stronge, vice president of research at TeleGeography. That includes cable and traditional satellite companies like SES and Kacific, which both delivered service to Tonga before Starlink did. “Elon Musk always seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room.”

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