The internet in Ukraine is still mostly online. Could Starlink be a backup if it goes out?
Elon Musk has a tendency to be outrageous on Twitter, and the Ukrainian government may have found a way to leverage him to help the country stay online if the internet goes out during the Russian invasion.
Although internet access has been relatively stable so far, fears of widespread outages have increased in recent days as Russia has directed its attacks on the country’s communication infrastructure, including TV towers.
Late on Monday, an equipment truck arrived from Starlink — the satellite internet subsidiary of Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. Inside were elegant black boxes, packed with white flat dishes that would allow users to always stay in touch. The equipment was perfectly posed for photos, which were shared online for inspiration, marketing, or maybe both.
The system works by connecting to a constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth, rather than the physical cables most types of online access require. But it’s hard to gauge how resilient a backup system Starlink can provide to the country at large without more information about Musk’s commitment, which remains unclear. SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the program.
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, only one truck of Starlink kits has arrived in Ukraine. Now the Ministry is raising funds to purchase additional equipment, according to Forbes Ukraine. Ukraine is also considering the purchase of used Starlink devices.
A key figure behind the initiative, a 31-year-old Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov — asked Musk for assistance on Twitter on Feb. 26.
The next day Musk, the world’s richest person with a net worth of $239 billion, activated Starlink’s service in Ukraine and promised to send more terminals.
The standard Starlink kit costs $499, according to Business Insider. A subscription to the network is $99.
So far, the system does appear to help some Ukrainians stay connected. And the general stability of Ukrainian internet access allows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and regular citizens to update the outside world about the Russian invasion.
However, internet connectivity has been affected in the southern and eastern parts of the country where fighting is the heaviest. Ukrainian officials say that Russia would not be able to switch off internet access for the entire country, and Doug Madory, Director of Internet analysis at Kentik, previously told The Record the country’s multiple land fiber connections to the west made it hard to take Ukraine as a whole offline.
Many Ukrainians fear they could be cut off from the world if Russian troops destroy the critical infrastructure responsible for television and the internet.
At the same time, Ukraine also took steps to limit Russian troops’ access to networks, including ordering its phone carriers—Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell—to shut down network access to phones from Russia and Belarus. This means that troops from those countries cannot send misleading messages or spread false information via phone calls, according to Ukraine’s state service responsible for information protection.
Russia, in turn, has already taken some steps to target communications infrastructure: On March 1, Russian missiles hit a TV tower in Kyiv, knocking out some access to news and broadcasts.
Some people in Ukraine are already testing the Starlink service.
Ukrainian engineer Oleg Kutkov, for instance, said in an interview with the Verge that his Starlink dish got a signal from one of SpaceX’s satellites in just 10 seconds. “I honestly didn’t believe that it would work,” Kutkov told The Verge.
Ukrainian state-owned railway operator Ukrzaliznytsia also received its terminal. Ukrzaliznytsia is notorious for its poor internet connection, but first plans to use Starlink for military purposes only.
“We have several operational headquarters that are moving around the country, and they need the internet,” said Ukrzaliznytsia’s CEO Alexander Kamishin in an interview with Forbes.
Another possibility is to use Starlink in the military or territorial defense, according to the Ministry of Digital Transformation.
Other Ukrainians can order their terminals on Starlink’s website, but it is not clear how fast they can receive them given that Ukraine is struggling with the full-scale war. Additionally, it is difficult to leave a house because of shelling and curfews introduced in many cities, including Kyiv and Odesa.
Satellite internet is the most useful for those living in villages where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. The internet connection in rural areas in Ukraine has historically been poor, but Fedorov pushed policies to change that.
He had been negotiating with Musk about Starlink even before the war, but the satellite launch was regularly postponed. One of the possible problems: the company couldn't obtain a license needed to start the operation in Ukraine, one source in the Ukrainian government who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations, told The Record.
Musk faced similar license issues in India, where he tried to roll out internet services in the country in early 2021. However, as of Jan. 15. SpaceX had 1,469 Starlink satellites active and 272 moving to operational orbits soon.
Musk, a founder of PayPal who has made much of his fortune as the CEO of Tesla, is no stranger to controversy. His companies have been accused of pushing regulatory boundaries and fostering a culture of toxicity, and Musk himself often weighs in loudly on Twitter durings times of crisis.
With just one truck of Starlink kits arriving in Ukraine so far, it’s unclear what the true value of his donation to Ukraine will be — but if internet connections do go down, Starlink could serve as a useful tool.
Correction: This post was updated to correct the spelling of the company name Kentik.
Daryna Antoniuk Daryna Antoniuk is a freelance reporter for Recorded Future News based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.