Starlink to the Rescue

10491226470?profile=RESIZE_400xTesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk said SpaceX’s high-speed Internet service, Starlink, has held out against Russia’s cyberwar tactics amid the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 

What Happened - Musk said last week that Starlink has resisted Russia’s “jamming & hacking attempts,” even as the Vladimir Putin-led country is ramping up efforts.  Musk linked his comment to a Reuters report that said Russia was behind a massive cyberattack against a satellite internet network that took tens of thousands of modems offline at the onset of the war.

Why It Matters - SpaceX has donated thousands of satellite internet kits to Ukraine since the country’s plea to Musk in February to provide those stations.  Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister earlier this month said Starlink has around 150,000 active users per day.  The service beams down high-speed internet via satellites in orbit to Earth, especially to remote areas, including those ravaged by war or natural calamity.  Musk was reportedly close to commercially launching Starlink in Ukraine months ahead of Russia’s invasion.  Starlink has plans to launch 4,425 satellites in orbit by 2024.

Musk has said that the chief of Russia’s space agency threatened him with consequences for providing Starlink internet terminals to Ukrainian forces.[1]  “Elon Musk, thus, is involved in supplying the fascist forces in Ukraine with military communication equipment,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, said in a message to Russian media, according to a translation provided by Musk.  “And for this, Elon, you will be held accountable like an adult—no matter how much you’ll play the fool.”  Musk commented on the exchange with a dose of dark humor, saying in a tweet, “If I die under mysterious circumstances, it’s been nice knowin ya.”  Rogozin posted the series of messages on his Telegram channel, including Musk’s joke.

Days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Musk announced that SpaceX’s Starlink, a satellite broadband service, began providing Internet to Ukrainians.  While Starlink delivered an information lifeline to darkened swaths of the war-torn country, including to hundreds of hospitals and clinics, it also served as a link to enable Ukrainian military drones to target Russian tanks and positions more effectively. 

A Ukrainian soldier identified as Dima, whose last name was withheld for security reasons, told journalists that “Starlink is what changed the war in Ukraine’s favor.  Russia went out of its way to blow up all our comms.  Now they can’t.  Starlink works under Katyusha fire, under artillery fire.  It even works in Mariupol.”

While it’s unclear how crucial Starlink has been to Ukraine’s military efforts, a report in the British news outlet The Telegraph suggested Musk’s technology was helping Ukraine “win the drone war.”

Shortly after Musk’s announcement regarding supplying Ukraine with Starlink, Rogozin issued a strongly worded statement similar in tone to the one that prompted Musk to suggest his life is under threat.  “This is the West that we should never trust. When Russia implements its highest national interests on the territory of Ukraine, Elon Musk appears with his Starlink which was previously declared as purely civilian,” Rogozin said.  “I warned about it, but our ‘muskophiles’ said he is the light of world cosmonautics. Here, look, he has chosen the side.”

‘Restoring the Destroyed Territories’ - Starlink uses thousands of small satellites in orbit about 340 miles above the Earth’s surface to beam down high-speed internet, especially to remote areas, including ones hit by natural calamities or ravaged by war.  As the Russia–Ukraine conflict entered its 70th day on 2 May, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister revealed the number of users that are relying on Starlink.  “Rough data on Starlink’s usage: around 150K active users per day.  This is crucial support for Ukraine’s infrastructure and restoring the destroyed territories,” Ukraine’s authorities wrote in a post on Twitter.

While a number of platforms have taken action against Russian media outlets in the wake of the invasion, Musk has said that his company would not follow.  “Starlink has been told by some governments (not Ukraine) to block Russian news sources. We will not do so unless at gunpoint,” Musk wrote in a post on Twitter.  “Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.”

Musk has embarked on a free speech crusade of sorts, seeking to buy Twitter, reform what he is described as the platform’s opaque moderation policies, and transform the social media giant into an “inclusive arena for free speech.”

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