Starlink: Why the new sovereign of low-earth orbit is bad news

Elon Musk’s influence in Ukraine and beyond shows that most big countries will require a constellation of LEO satellites of their own that they can control.

August 06, 2023 07:18 pm | Updated August 07, 2023 10:15 am IST

The Starlink satellite constellation aims to provide internet to consumers around the world. It is owned and operated by Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX.

The Starlink satellite constellation aims to provide internet to consumers around the world. It is owned and operated by Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. | Photo Credit: Reuters

In January 2023, Telegram channels in Russia were flooded with undated pictures of an unmanned Ukranian drone that included a retrofitted Starlink satellite dish made by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company.

The images, a pro-Russian paramilitary group claimed, showed that the dish’s rear plastic casing had been hacked off to reduce its weight and make it easier to fit on the drone. On paper, the integration of Starlink’s satellite internet service meant that the machine could be controlled from anywhere and be used for everything from surveilling Russian troops to coordinating military strikes.

Eleven days later, responding to a video of a Russian TV anchor calling him a war criminal, Musk tweeted: “We are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes…”.

And just like that, the world was informed that a billionaire sitting 10,000 km away had effectively changed the rules of engagement for the Russia-Ukraine war.

For most of the world, Starlink’s importance in Ukraine has hammered in how high-speed satellite Internet access is quickly becoming the most valuable strategic resource in a conflict or war-stricken region. For millions of Ukranians, it was a horrifying moment of clarity on how much of their country’s future depended on the whims of just one man – an erratic tech CEO known for his ability to both push and break boundaries.

The importance of Starlink

For most of the last three decades, satellite internet ranked pretty high on the list of possible, but largely impractical, technology – somewhere between jetpacks and hover cars. The idea was simple: governments or companies would send up small satellites into space that would beam high-speed Internet to users with the help of ground stations or terminals back on earth.

In the 1990s and 2000s, most of the companies that sent up such satellites ended up failing, either due to high costs or technical difficulties. It didn’t help that the actual product at the time was bad and that the business opportunity was limited.

A lot of this changed from 2019, in large part due to Musk. Better satellites, placed closer to earth, and in a connected constellation could bring satellite internet access on par with the average broadband experience.

Today, Musk’s Starlink service is the undisputed king of the section of space called low-earth orbit (LEO). Of the roughly 7,500 active satellites that orbit Earth today, more than half are Starlink satellites.

There are a handful of competitors, some backed by governments: Viasat, OneWeb, Avanti, SES, Immarsaat, and Iridium. But none of them come close to offering the convenience, speed or affordability of Starlink.

Remote control

After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out in 2022, fibre network lines and cell towers were the first pieces of infrastructure to be destroyed, rendering Starlink as the lifeblood of Ukraine’s communication network. It also made them beholden to Musk’s mercurial personality. 

When Internet connectivity is deployed in a region, the nature of the technology is such that its operations aren’t controlled by the user, but by the company. So when the Ukrainian government wanted to switch on/off access in a particular area – for example, if a piece of territory had fallen into Russian hands and a few Starlink dishes or terminals had been lost – it had to call up Starlink each and every time. Imagine an Ukrainian army officer needing connectivity, only to find out that it’s 4 am in California and his contact at SpaceX won’t wake up for another three hours.

Musk could argue that he doesn’t want to give up control but the flipside is that he can also choose to turn the service off whenever he wishes. This is why Taiwan, in desperate need of a back-up in the event China snaps its undersea cables, suggested Starlink operate in its country through a joint venture that would have a local company own 51% of the entity. Musk refused, and talks petered out.

“If I’m China, I would ask Elon Musk to control all the satellite receivers in Taiwan. If I can control him, in an emergency I can turn it off,” Herming Chiueh, Taiwan’s deputy minister of digital affairs, later told Bloomberg.

It’s not as if a Starlink deployment can’t be customised to give any government greater control over how the service works. Media reports indicate that in June 2023, the Pentagon approved a new deal to buy 500 new Starlink terminals for Ukraine that would reduce the company’s ability to interfere in operations.

Warping how the internet works

Traditional infrastructure works on a public-utility principle. Toll-road operators don’t get to decide who uses their roads. Similarly, telecom companies don’t get to decide whether a particular region deserves no internet access because its inhabitants might use it for unsavoury purposes. Yet satellite internet companies get to insert themselves in key debates because of how the technology works and the lack of regulation.

After the September 2022 protests in Iran, the government shut off internet access in large parts of the country. Musk quickly stepped in to turn on Starlink connectivity. Activists and protestors smuggled in satellite dishes, and to date over 100 Starlink terminals are active in Iran, although the government there has declared it illegal. Short of shooting down Starlink’s satellites, Iran’s government can’t do anything.

There aren’t many that would oppose giving non-violent and democratic protestors the right to safely communicate. But it’s when the other side of the penny drops that the problem of Starlink’s monopoly becomes clear.

The New York Times reports that Musk refused Ukraine’s request in 2022 to provide Starlink connectivity near Crimea. The Ukrainian army wanted to send an explosive-filled maritime drone into Russian ships. It was only months later that Musk said that he wouldn’t allow Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who serves as Musk’s lieutenant, went a step further and took Ukraine to task over their use of the satellite internet technology, saying the country had leveraged it in ways that were “not part of any agreement”.

Starlink sits outside the realm of a typical government-to-government defence deal, yet these decisions get to be taken not by a government accountable to its citizens but a handful of tech company employees.

A satellite race

The obvious solution is that we need more LEO satellite constellations – government, private or some combination of the two – that provide Internet access.

Starlink’s monopoly was the result of many factors. Admittedly, Musk’s foresight is one; extremely light regulation from the Federal Communications Commission is another.

The secret sauce though is that SpaceX’s partly reusable rockets give Starlink a non-stop elevator to get satellites into LEO in a relatively inexpensive manner. This is where its serious competitors trip up.

Rival firm OneWeb, whose biggest shareholders are Bharti Airtel’s holding company and the U.K. government, were forced to abort a launch in Russia after Putin demanded the satellites not be used against Moscow. OneWeb took a $230 million hit after Russia refused to return its satellites too.

This is why more government-specific projects are needed. In 2022, the European Union earmarked EUR 2.4 billion to set up a “sovereign” satellite constellation to be rolled out by 2027. China has its own plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO mega constellation to rival Starlink.

Starlink’s disputes with Ukraine and other countries should serve as a wake-up call of how the power of the stars is quickly being concentrated in the hands of just one man, and a worrying lesson for any country or government looking to depend on Musk for connectivity.

Anuj Srivas is a freelance technology writer.

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