How Starlink struggled to keep Ukraine online

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March 29, Ukrainian forces took to the ruined streets of Irpen, northwest of Kyiv, littered with blackened rubble and corpses. As a result of the destruction, all 24 of the city’s cell towers were disabled, preventing traumatized survivors from telling friends and family that they were safe. “Most of these base stations were significantly damaged,” says Konstantin Naumenko, head of planning and development of the radio access network of the Vodafone Ukraine cellular network. Just two days later, with the help of Elon Musk, the city was online again.

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Irpin was reconnected on March 31 after Vodafone Ukraine engineers arrived with a round white satellite dish known to its manufacturer as Dishy McFlatface – a terminal for Satellite internet service Starlink proposed by Musk to SpaceX. Engineers installed the receiver and its motorized base on a mobile base station on the outskirts of Irpen, whose fiber-optic connection and power were cut, and connected the generator. A few hours later, the city was online again, as were its remaining inhabitants. “The first thing they do is call their relatives to say they are safe and sound,” Naumenko says.

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The speed with which Irpin was brought back online is testament to the ingenuity of the engineers involved and the dexterity with which the Ukrainian government used the Starlink terminals. Since the Russian invasion, the country has received more than 10,000 devices, thanks in part to funding and other assistance from the US government. Terminals have already become the centerpiece of the country’s response to the war, finding uses for both civilian and military purposes.

Provided by Vodafone Ukraine
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The rapid and wide-scale deployment of Starlink in Ukraine has also become an unplanned experiment with the potential geopolitical power of next-generation satellite internet services. If SpaceX or similar providers are willing, high-speed internet from the sky could be a powerful way to provide connectivity for individuals or populations suffering the hardships of war or authoritarian government. “In Ukraine, you could immediately see that Starlink and other constellations mean you have the ability to have a resilient system that is protected from traditional ground attack or control,” says Rose Krosheer, research fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank headquartered to Washington. SpaceX did not respond to questions about its work in Ukraine or whether it could offer Starlink in other conflict zones or places where Internet access is limited.

SpaceX has launched over 2,000 Starlink satellites since 2019. offers internet services to most of Europe, parts of Central and South America, New Zealand and southern Australia. This is the most mature of the three projects, including one from the Amazoncreation of a new generation of high-speed Internet services using many small satellites in low Earth orbit.

But it was not the war that brought Starlink to Ukraine, but the service’s ability to improve communications in the country with vast rural areas. The Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine first contacted SpaceX a few months before the start of the war, says department adviser Anton Melnyk. Starlink executives spoke with the Minister of Digital Technologies of Ukraine, Mikhail Fedorov, about the activation of the service at the end of February. A few days later, Russia invaded, and Musk’s service became attractive for another reason.

Two days after the Russian invasion, Fedorov tweeted a request for Starlink terminals from Musk. Ten hours later, the SpaceX CEO confirmed that the Starlink service was “active” in Ukraine. Just two days later, on February 28, Fedorov published photos truck stacked high with Starlink boxes and unpacks the dish.

Behind the scenes, SpaceX has struggled to update its service for use on the battlefield. The firmware update allowed the terminals to be powered by the car’s cigarette lighter. The company also had to adapt to Russian attempts to interfere with signals between terminals and satellites. Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare at the Pentagon, praised the speed with which SpaceX was able to avoid interference with the software update. “The way they did it just amazed me,” he said on conference about defense technology, lamenting that US military equipment is not as flexible. “We need to be able to have that agility.”

Starlink’s work in Ukraine has also received support from the US government. The US Agency for International Development began talks with SpaceX to support the distribution of its terminals in early March, says agency spokesman Ashley Yale. USAID paid to ship a consignment of 5,000 terminals to Poland and worked with the Ukrainian government to arrange their last crossing of the border. The US government paid for 1,333 terminals, while SpaceX paid for the rest.

The agency revealed the project in early April. releasing a statement explaining that the terminals will allow officials and citizens to communicate with each other and with the world, “even if Putin’s brutal aggression destroys Ukraine’s fiber-optic or cellular communications infrastructure.”

By the end of April, there were more than 10,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine, Fedorov said. Telegram message. May 2 he tweeted that about 150,000 Ukrainians use the service every day. The technique that was used to get Irpin back on the grid is now standard protocol for territory liberated by Ukrainian forces. Nokia has also updated the software used on its cell tower hardware to better support Starlink, says Vodafone’s Naumenko.

In the Chernihiv region, northeast of Kyiv, fighting destroyed 10 kilometers of cable, cutting off a number of villages with about 400 internet subscribers, Fedorov said. The local ISP was able to get them all back online with a single Starlink.

Starlink also restored connection with the city of Borodyanka, which was released three days later after Irpen on April 1. Early the next morning, employees of the Ukrainian telecommunications company Kyivstar brought a mobile mobile base station with a Starlink receiver attached to it. Kyivstar has already implemented this solution several times,” says Technical Director Volodymyr Lutchenko. According to Lutchenko, a cell tower connected via Starlink cannot operate at the same speed as one connected via optical fiber, but it can still support the calls and mobile data people need to get online.

It is less clear how the Starlink terminals helped the Ukrainian military. When asked what proportion of devices are used by the country’s armed forces, Fedorov replied through an interpreter that “most of them are used for civilian purposes.” These include the reconnection of hospitals, ISPs and some tech companies that have foreign clients.

Other sources portray Starlink terminals as a powerful tool for the Ukrainian armed forces. In March, Time London informed that Ukrainian forces used reconnaissance drones connected to Starlink terminals to send information about targeting artillery. In April, New York Times published video in which a member of the Ukrainian National Guard says he was among those trapped under a steel plant in Mariupol due to the Russian siege of the city, but was still online thanks to Starlink.

Last week, a Twitter account on behalf of James Vasquez, who claims to be a US veteran who is now helping the Ukrainian military, posted a video thanking Musk for Starlink. “It came in very handy today, saved a lot of our asses,” he said, pointing to a green-painted Dishi mounted on the top of the van. Vazquez did not respond to a request for comment, but his status as a person currently working in Ukraine was vouched for by US Republican Party spokesman Adam Kinzinger.

Starlink’s success in Ukraine suggests that it and other next-generation satellite services could be a powerful tool in conflicts and natural disasters in other parts of the world, or a way to help people living in places with tight internet controls, says Michael Schwille, who works for over the information warfare policy at the Rand Corporation.

Schwille argues that the US government has long supported technologies that can deliver unfiltered or sensitive information to the people who need it, including Radio Free Europe and grants that fund the Tor anonymity service and the Signal encryption app. “USAID has been promoting democracy for a long time,” he adds. “I’m sure they’re thinking about where else this kind of technology could be used.”

Recent events in Kherson, a Russian-occupied city in southern Ukraine, highlight Starlink’s potential to overcome internet restrictions. This was reported by Ukrainian officials. Financial Times Last week, a fiber optic cable previously used by Ukrainian ISPs was rerouted to a Russian-linked ISP in occupied Crimea. This could lock residents inside an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. online censorship system.

SpaceX coverage map shows that Kherson is within its service area in Ukraine, suggesting that Starlink terminals may provide an uncensored alternative. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, has repeatedly criticized SpaceX and Musk in recent months and has previously argued that Starlink functions as a division of the Pentagon and not a commercial service.

Ukraine has been an instructive test for Starlink, but using satellite internet as a tool for liberation in other parts of the world is likely to be more difficult. Ukraine invited Starlink to use its radio waves, but many countries do not. Kroshir at the Center for Global Development does not expect to see Starlink in Ethiopia, for example, where people have been affected by the internet shutdown as a result of the civil war. “This is a more complex situation that is not directly in the interests of the United States,” she says. It will also be difficult for Musk to give Starlink access to China, where his automaker Tesla has a plant that could be targeted for retaliation, Kroshir said.

These difficulties do not seem to have convinced Russia or China that they have nothing to fear from Starlink. Officials from both countries criticized the company’s actions in Ukraine. In addition, the two countries have plans to create their own constellations of Internet satellites, which will almost certainly be under tight government control.

Additional report by Morgan Meeker.


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