Why is Elon Musk an Internet Service Provider?

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. Two days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 26, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov he tweeted in the richest man in the world.

“While your missiles are successfully landing from space – Russian missiles are attacking the civilian population of Ukraine!” Fedorov wrote. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations,” he added.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites placed relatively close to Earth’s surface by parent company SpaceX through a series of rocket launches since mid-2019. The company’s internet services are available to individuals, businesses and even airlines for prices starting at $110 per month. The equipment used to connect to them, small satellite dishes the company calls terminals, cost $599 and up. Starlink’s satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO), 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface, much closer than geosynchronous satellites deployed by competing Internet companies. This means that it takes less time to transmit data from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.

Musk responded to Fedorov’s tweet the same day, announcing that Starlink service was “currently active in Ukraine,” indicating that its satellites would begin broadcasting internet to the country and send more terminals. For more than eight months, Starlink has played a critical role in keeping Ukraine’s military and citizens online as the war rages and Russia targets Ukraine’s telecommunications and electrical infrastructure.

“This was the beginning of a great story because Starlink technologies changed this war,” Fedorov told an audience at an internet summit in Lisbon in early November. Satellite internet service has not only kept Ukrainian citizens and businesses online, but has also played a vital role in the war effort, helping troops communicate with each other on the battlefield and even enabling the operation of drones and weapons systems.

But Starlink’s centrality to Ukraine’s war effort raises questions about why the U.S. government hasn’t provided Ukraine with more than $20 billion in military and humanitarian aid so far. Is it ultimately a good thing that Ukraine depends on one company, namely one man, to stay online in the middle of a war?

Starlink has many advantages over other communication systems beyond just low-orbit satellites. Its terminals are also smaller than the typical satellite antenna required for connection and are easy to install.

“They’re about the size of a medium-sized pizza box,” said Andrew Cavalier, an analyst at technology intelligence firm ABI Research, which focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. That makes them easier to deploy in wartime, he said, but “having smaller terminals means more terminals logistically, and better ground-to-air coverage.”

There are similar companies working on LEO communications, including UK-based OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper (funded by Musk’s billionaire friend Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese firms GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But those firms are still in various stages of starting commercial operations, Cavalier said, giving Musk and Starlink a head start that its use in the Russia-Ukraine war will only strengthen.

Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Olga Stefanishyna said that Starlink played an important role in strengthening Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion, especially in the early days of the war. “Our government was able to function because I had Starlink over my head,” he said. “It was a turning point in our survival.”

But Musk’s Ukrainian Internet is not all philanthropy. According to multiple reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine were at least partially funded by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. A Polish government spokesman confirmed that Poland paid about $5.9 million for Starlink services with the support of Polish state-owned enterprises.

Washington has already paid for a small part of the Starlink terminals in Ukraine. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1,508 terminals worth a total of $3 million in March, USAID’s spokesperson said. The agency also delivered an additional 3,667 terminals donated by SpaceX, and the company paid for Internet service for all terminals.

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

SpaceX, the US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for further comment on the Starlink funding. Musk he tweeted In mid-October, less than half of Ukraine’s 25,300 Starlink terminals were paying for the service.

But concerns remain about putting all of Ukraine’s wartime communications needs into a single mercurial basket; sudden interruptions can be devastating. This happened at the end of October, when 1300 Starlink terminals went offline due to lack of funding. The communications blackout with the Ukrainian military came just weeks after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it could no longer fund Ukraine’s satellite services.

Musk later withdrew these demands. tweet that Starlink would “continue to fund Ukraine… for free” and later that SpaceX “withdrew the funding requestNegotiations between the company and the US government are said to be ongoing.

Speaking to reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 19, Stefanishina also said that Musk had confirmed to his government that he would continue to fund Starlink in Ukraine. “When Elon Musk confirms his funding, he has a Twitter guarantee [Starlink], and he spoke to our Minister of Digital Transformation. That’s why we consider it a deal.”

But Stefanishyna also expressed doubts about how committed the billionaire tycoon is to these deals, given his tendency to suddenly flit between new business ventures and return to big deals of the past. He said Ukraine is making plans to supplement Starlink with other systems, only if Musk pulls out of the deal.

“Given this huge range of volatility, from wanting to continue financial support as CEO of SpaceX to not wanting to, we’re doing some contingency planning for ourselves,” he said. Satellite companies operating from geosynchronous orbit could potentially serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says it already supports the country by connecting refugees in neighboring Slovakia), but building and maintaining the infrastructure to enable those connections is likely to be more expensive than serving Ukraine. it will be difficult. Starlink experience.

“From a commercial standpoint, Starlink is unique in the market right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a defense program fellow at the Center for a New American Security, adding that US military communications are typically built and designed for more specific purposes. objectives and therefore may be more narrowly applied.

“The U.S. military will have different requirements and needs than a purely civilian application,” he said. “Starlink is kind of a common goal. … It’s easier to use for someone like Ukraine – it’s there, it’s already a commercial product, so it’s easier,” he added.

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

“From whom [Ukraine’s] perspective, it’s probably a better idea to diversify their network infrastructure … just because if Elon Musk decides on a whim that he doesn’t want to provide any more connectivity, they’re turned off completely,” Cavalier said.

While Musk has a higher profile than most executives, the involvement of private companies in military conflicts, especially since his acquisition of Twitter, is not new, nor is the debate over who should pay for those services. But the Pentagon usually deals with traditional military contractors, not eccentric Russian-speaking billionaires in the midst of Ukraine’s existential struggle.

“It’s not unheard of for other contractors to rub shoulders with the U.S. government,” Metrick said. The difference here is that Musk is not “the CEO of a more traditional military contractor.”

Starlink also went to war in his own way.

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

The US government has wireless communications capabilities, both through its own satellites and through partnerships with well-known commercial providers such as Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat, and Knight Sky. Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Nov. 1 that the department was in talks with “SpaceX and others” about Ukraine’s satellite Internet requests, but declined to share further details.

But the United States, unlike SpaceX, can offer Ukraine other things it needs besides broadband — such as anti-tank missiles or long-range artillery.

“It’s not a question for me, it’s a lack of alternatives — rather, it reflects the situation to me in a way,” Rogers said. “If you look at the support that the United States has given, significant communications capability, I believe, was not one of the primary areas that the United States provided additional support to.”

Given how much the conflict has strained US and NATO military resources, Starlink could provide the path of least resistance for all parties involved to fill the void. Rogers argued that the company’s involvement would have allowed the United States to provide other types of military assistance “without devoting very limited resources that are in high demand in our own military” (of which satellite communication was only a small part). he added.

Now the big question is what happens next. Rogers said the immediate focus for the U.S. and Ukrainian governments remains maintaining Ukraine’s access to Starlink service, but added that the current situation will likely lead to future talks on how to make the full-spectrum military procurement process predictable and sustainable.

“The commercial sector is developing these amazing capabilities that have historically been the domain of governments, but now it’s available commercially to any user — commercial or government — if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. “So the government needs to figure out how to create mechanisms so that they can bring that kind of capability online quickly when they need it, and how to maintain it over time.”

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

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