Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet has become a lifeline for Ukrainians

Parts of war-torn Ukraine with little or no internet have found an alternative: Starlink emergency receivers.

The satellite internet service operated by SpaceX that CEO Elon Musk described at the start of the war has emerged as a lifeline to many regions of the country, with more than 10,000 Dish antennas are in service and more are on the way.

“This is not a perfect Internet,” said Dmytro Zinchuk, head of network operations for Internet provider Freenet, which serves the region around Kiev and western and northern Ukraine. “But with absolutely no connection, Starlink is just a salvation for people who have been offline for many weeks.”

So far, he said, his company has combined five government-donated Starlink stations in a frenzy to get as many customers back online as possible in areas that have faced heavy Russian bombardment. That could mean connecting hundreds of people to a single family terminal.

Starlink satellite Internet systems arrive in Ukraine.
Starlink satellite Internet systems arrive in Ukraine. Sarhi Peretola Charitable Foundation

“We are well aware that Starlink was not really created for this purpose, but we were able to launch more than 150 subscribers on one Starlink,” Zinchuk said in an interview on the Telegram messaging app.

Most basic Starlink kits donated to Ukraine include a 23-inch wide receiver dish that needs to be installed outside and a wire that connects to a simple router displaying a Wi-Fi internet signal (most use a round dish but some are newer rectangular). Internet speeds vary, but one Starlink enthusiast in Kyiv, Oleg Kotkov, said in a phone interview that he often gets download speeds of up to 200 megabits per second — fast enough for most, if not all, home internet use. Americans usually pay $110 a month for service.

Starlink relies on signals transmitted to and from a constellation of satellites orbiting low Earth, unlike competitors whose satellites orbit the planet at much higher altitudes. This generally results in a faster and more reliable service NASA warned More Starlink satellites could interfere with its asteroid mission.

Andrey Nabok, a senior official at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, a government agency with a broad mandate on technology issues, said in an interview via Facebook Messenger that his office had donated about 200 set-top boxes to local service providers since the war began. He and his team traveled to Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, in early April after Russian forces withdrew, to install the dish antennas.

A ministry spokesperson said in an email that the ministry has also donated Starlink receivers to schools, hospitals, village governments and fire departments.

After Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, tweeted an open request in late February for Mask to send receivers, Musk tweeted that company.

Satellite internet has been around for decades, but it has generally been used by militaries or as a last resort for rural areas that have trouble getting reliable broadband connections. But in recent years, booming aerospace industry Opening the door to orbital constellations of smaller satellites that can provide service, including Starlink and rival service from amazonKuiper Project.

Infrastructure damage in Chernihiv, Ukraine.
Infrastructure damage in Chernihiv, Ukraine.Courtesy of Andre Nabuc

In Ukraine, Starlink technology has found a place where it can establish itself, especially when used in ways other than the way it was designed. Throughout its conquest, Russia has constantly attacked Ukraine’s communications infrastructure with military weapons and cyber-attacks.

Michael Schuyle, senior policy analyst at RAND, said a number of factors are working in Starlink’s favor, including its ease of use and relatively high speeds, its ability to defend against signal jamming attacks, a US program to ship thousands of to Ukraine, and the fact that the company has waived About large user fees for Ukrainians.

“When you destroy all the fiber-optic cables that connect the cities, and you blow up all the cell phone towers, you quickly isolate the communications in a particular area,” he said in a phone interview. “With the distribution of these satellites, the Ukrainians are setting up these stations in the places that broke down. Now they can send text messages, call their loved ones and know they are fine.”

in last telegram On April 19, Fedorov said that 10,000 Starlink stations were operating in the country. he is too Tweet Wednesday Starlink has registered office in Ukraine.

The stations came from a mixture of sources. A spokesperson for the US Agency for International Development said it has spent about $800,000 to hand over 5,175 of it to the Ukrainian government — it bought about a quarter of it, and Starlink donated the rest — plus an additional 175 for others in the country. The Polish oil company PKN Orlen . owns donated someHowever, the company did not respond to questions about the number. Nabok, an official at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, said his agency has received donations from Starlink from several allies in the European Union, though he declined to reveal the countries or the number of stations.

Entering the country presents another challenge entirely. Maria Pisarenko, a spokeswoman for the Serhiy Pretula Charitable Foundation, a non-profit group he heads Former political rival He brought about 20 Starlinks through a relatively secret operation, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“You can’t buy it in bulk or send it directly to Ukraine,” she said. “So one of our volunteers, who has a good network of contacts in the US, asks different people to search for and buy Starlinks separately, one by one. Then they send them individually to Poland. There, some of his good acquaintances collect all the Starlinks and send them to Lviv to our logistics center. From there, the boxes go to Kyiv. ”

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Starlink has some limitations.

Most commercial satellite internet receivers broadcast a signal that can be easily geolocated using widely available technology, said Frank Bucks, senior vice president of Kratos, a military contractor, and president of Space ISAC, a nonprofit group that shares information about cybersecurity threats. to the space industry. This could make a Starlink user in a disputed area vulnerable to attack.

Starlink equipment can be directly damaged.

Viktor Zora, a senior Ukrainian cybersecurity official, said at a press conference on Wednesday that a few Starlink units had been affected by the Russian bombing, though it was not clear if they were specific targets. Like terrestrial internet infrastructure, satellite internet service also relies on computers that are vulnerable to hackers.

At the beginning of the invasion, in one of the most destructive cyberattacks of the war, hackers remotely erased Satellite modems that served Eastern European customers of Viasat Internet via satellite. Zora had previously told reporters that Russia was responsible for the hack, and that it greatly affected the communications of the Ukrainian army in the early days of the fighting.

But when Starlink devices in Ukraine faced an electromagnetic attack in March, they performed much better, according to US military officials. He said at a conference last week. Kevin Coggins, who heads Booz Allen Hamilton’s positioning, navigation and timing service, said engineers were able to quickly write and deploy software patch to receivers, mitigating the attack.

“You must have a way to distribute [the software update] For user stations that you can’t physically touch, which is what SpaceX has been able to do.” “It’s not normal for space systems to be able to do that,” he said.

“What SpaceX has done is tremendous,” Coggins said.