Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet is becoming a lifeline for Ukrainians

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

Satellite internet service operated by SpaceX, introduced by CEO Elon Musk at the start of the war, has emerged as a lifeline for many parts of the country with more than 10,000 people. dish antennas are in service and more are on the way.

“It’s not an ideal internet,” said Dmitry Zinchuk, head of network operations at Freenet, an internet provider serving mostly western and northern Ukraine around Kyiv. “But if there’s still no connection, Starlink is just a lifesaver for people who haven’t had a connection for weeks.”

He said his company has so far integrated five Starlink terminals donated by the government to bring as many customers online as possible in areas hit by heavy Russian bombing. This can mean hundreds of people connecting to a terminal designed for a single home.

Starlink satellite internet systems have arrived in Ukraine. Serhiy Pritula Charitable Foundation

“We know very well that Starlink is not really designed for this, but we managed to launch more than 150 subscribers on one Starlink,” Zinchuk said in an interview on the Telegram messaging app.

Most of the basic Starlink kits donated to Ukraine include a 23-inch-wide receiving dish that must be installed outside and a cable that connects to a simple router that provides a Wi-Fi internet signal (most use a round dish, but some newer ones are rectangular). Internet speeds vary, but Oleg Kutkov, a Starlink enthusiast in Kyiv, said in a phone interview that he often gets download speeds of 200 megabits per second — fast enough for all household Internet use. Americans typically pay $110 a month for the service.

Starlink relies on a constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites and signals from it, unlike competitors whose satellites orbit the planet at higher altitudes. This generally leads to a faster and more reliable service, although NASA has warned that more Starlink satellites could interfere with the asteroid-tracking mission.

Andrii Nabook, a senior official at Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Ministry, a government agency with a broad mandate on technology issues, said in an interview over Facebook Messenger that his office has donated about 200 receivers to local providers since the war began. After Russian troops withdrew in early April, he and his team went to Chernigov, north of Kiev, to set up dish antennas.

The ministry also donated Starlink receivers to schools, hospitals, village governments and fire departments.

After Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, publicly requested Musk to send receivers on Twitter in late February, Musk tweeted company will do.

Satellite Internet has been around for decades, but it’s generally used either by the military or as a last resort for rural areas that struggle to get reliable broadband. But the booming space industry in recent years has opened the door to an orbital constellation of serviceable small satellites, including Starlink and Project Kuiper, a rival service from Amazon.

Infrastructure was damaged in the city of Chernigov, Ukraine.
Infrastructure was damaged in the city of Chernigov, Ukraine.Courtesy Andrii Nabok

In Ukraine, Starlink technology has found a place where it can prove itself, especially when it is used in a different way than it was intended. Throughout the occupation, Russia has consistently attacked Ukraine’s communications infrastructure with both military weapons and cyber attacks.

Michael Schwille, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said a number of factors work in Starlink’s favor, including its ease of use and relatively high speed, its ability to defend against signal jamming attacks, the US program to send thousands of programs. Receivers to Ukraine and the fact that the company waived significant user fees for Ukrainians.

“When you destroy all the connecting fiber optic cables that connect cities and blow up all the cell phone towers, you quickly isolate communications in a certain area,” he said. “With the distribution of these satellites, Ukrainians are building these stations in out-of-order places. Now they can text and call their loved ones and know that everything is fine.”

In a Telegram message on April 19, Fedorov said that 10,000 Starlink terminals are operating in the country. That too he tweeted on Wednesday Starlink has registered its office in Ukraine.

Terminals come from many sources. A spokeswoman for the US Agency for International Development said it spent about $800,000 to deliver 5,175 of them to the Ukrainian government – about a quarter of which Starlink bought, and Starlink donated the rest – an additional 175 to others in the country. There is the Polish oil company PKN Orlen he forgave a part, but the company did not respond to questions about how many. Nabook, an official at Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Ministry, said his agency had received Starlink donations from many European Union allies, but he declined to say from which countries or from how many terminals.

Bringing them into the country is a completely different problem. Maria Pysarenko, a spokeswoman for the Serhiy Pritula Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit run by a former political opponent of President Volodymyr Zelensky, said it brought about 20 Starlinks through a relatively secretive process.

“You cannot buy them in bulk or send them directly to Ukraine,” he said. “So one of our volunteers, who has a good network of contacts in the US, asks different people to search and buy Starlinks individually. Then they send them separately to Poland. There, several other good friends of his collect all the Starlinks and send them to our logistics center in Lviv. From there, the boxes go to Kyiv.”

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Starlink has some limitations.

Frank Backes, senior vice president of military contractor Kratos and chairman of Space ISAC, a nonprofit group that shares information about cybersecurity threats, said most commercial satellite Internet receivers broadcast a signal that can be easily geolocated with widely used technology. space industry. This could leave a Starlink user in a contested area vulnerable to attack.

And Starlink equipment can be directly damaged.

A handful of Starlink units were damaged by Russian fire, but it was unclear if they were specifically targeted, Viktor Zhora, a top Ukrainian cybersecurity official, said at a press conference on Wednesday. Like terrestrial Internet infrastructure, satellite Internet service relies on computers that are vulnerable to hackers.

At the start of the invasion, in one of the most devastating cyberattacks of the war, hackers remotely wiped satellite modems serving Eastern European customers of satellite internet company Viasat. Jora previously told reporters that Russia was responsible for the attack, which significantly affected Ukrainian military communications in the early days of the fighting.

But when Starlink devices in Ukraine faced an electromagnetic attack in March, they fared much better, US military officials said at a conference last week. Kevin Coggins, who heads Booz Allen Hamilton’s Positioning, Navigation and Timing service and is a member of the Space ISAC, said engineers were able to quickly write and deploy software patches to the receivers, which mitigated the attack.

“You have to have a way to distribute [the software update] to user terminals that you can’t physically touch, SpaceX was able to do that,” he said. “It’s not normal for space systems to be able to do that,” he said.

“What SpaceX is doing is incredible,” Coggins said

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