Starlink offers internet access in times of crisis, but is it just a PR stunt?

The undersea cable connecting Tonga to the global internet and phone systems was finally restored in late February. The archipelagic state’s access has been cut short since January 15, when the largely submerged volcano Hongga Tonga-Hung Hapai unleashed a massive eruption and tsunami. Strong underwater currents, possibly from the partial collapse of the volcano, have caused extensive damage to the 50-mile stretch of 510-mile undersea cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world.

Portions of government-owned cables were cut to pieces, while others were blown away several miles away or buried in silt. This isolated most of Tonga’s 105,000 residents (with the exception of a few satellite-connected devices called “chat beetles” that can send alerts and text messages). When it became clear that this would go on for more than a month, a controversial figure stepped in: In late January, Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk tweeted, “Can people from Tonga let us know if it’s important for SpaceX to send out Starlink terminals?” Musk’s demonstration of satellite internet equipment appears to have won plaudits from Tonga residents who suffered from the disaster. Almost immediately, the company moved a team of its engineers to remote Pacific islands.

At one glance, providing the stricken country with another way of long-term Internet access – apart from vulnerable cables under the sea – appears to be a beneficial development. This is not the only occasion when Starlink has offered its services in the wake of disaster or turmoil. In 2020, the company also sent seven terminals to Washington State, small dish antennas that communicate with Starlink satellites in orbit, for free use during wildfire season. This gave trapped residents and emergency responders vital access to the Internet, said Stephen Friedrich, a communications officer for the Washington Military Department. And on February 26, He said on Twitter This Starlink service is now active in war-torn Ukraine. (Specific details about the company’s work in the region It remains somewhat rarebut Starlink terminals have been delivered to the nation, and civilians on the ground are reporting that the internet is working.)

Like other SpaceX interventions, the offer of Starlink services to Tonga after the disaster certainly has an altruistic component. But as other coverage has pointed out, providing Starlink access to Ukraine’s Internet isn’t as easy as it sounds, and doing so won’t end the country’s connectivity issues in the midst of a battle for its survival. For various reasons, SpaceX’s offer to Tonga is not without complications. Obviously, adding another way to access the Internet in the event of a future disaster is welcome. But the decision also benefits the company by helping it transition into a new (and weak) market, all while giving Starlink — whose highly reflective satellites have angered many astronomers, among others — a good PR boost.

When it comes to Tonga, the awkward mix of Starlink’s pros and cons have some observers wary. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart,” says Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, who has spent the past few years closely monitoring Starlink’s spread. “They’re doing it for profit.” (As of this writing, SpaceX has not responded to requests for comment.)

Given the historical weakness of the Tonga cable under the sea (in 2019 the ship’s anchor damaged it and briefly cut off Internet access), dedicated satellite communication seems very appropriate. Starlink is not the only satellite internet provider to move to the region. About two weeks after the explosion damaged the undersea cable, Tongan authorities cleared Kacific, the Singapore-based broadband satellite operator, to provide its own services to the country, and is now beginning to roll it out to customers. This type of system works a little differently than Starlink: a small customer dish antenna that listens and talks to the Kacific1 geostationary satellite. Kacific1, in turn, connects to one of three ground stations, or “teleports” – larger dishes located in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The customer’s Internet connection works as long as the Kacific1 satellite can “see” one of the three ground stations and the customer’s dish. Since this satellite is suspended at a very high altitude (about 22,400 miles), anyone with a dish in the Asia Pacific region is within range.

Geostationary satellites like Kacific generally offer a slower internet connection, compared to the low altitude orbiters used by Starlink. The latter’s system is based on a ground station called a “gateway,” which is physically connected to the nearest data center or router connected to the global Internet via underground fiber optic cables. This gateway then sends internet data from the rest of the world to Starlink satellites, which send the information to individual small dishes, or terminals, about people’s belongings. After the recent explosion destroyed Tonga’s undersea cable, the country lost access to the terrestrial Internet – so a gateway cannot be set up in Tonga itself. Instead, SpaceX has chosen neighboring Fiji as a site to build a temporary gateway, says Ulrich Spedel, a computer science and data communications specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Fijian Communications Minister Ayaz Syed Khayyum last month Advertise on Twitter The SpaceX team is now in Fiji to build the Starlink Gateway to reconnect Tonga with the world. But it appears that little is known about SpaceX’s efforts. “We received information from Starlink a few weeks ago regarding their attempt to provide an internet connection to the country via Fiji, but so far there is no development on the matter. An engineer at Tonga Cable, who wishes to remain anonymous, said Starlink has been silent since Then, and I don’t know why.” (As of this writing, Sayed Khayyam’s office has not responded to requests for comment.)

Fiji may not be an ideal location for a gateway serving Tonga because Starlink satellites in low orbits cannot receive Internet data from a very distant ground station, Spidell explains, only from one within their relatively limited view. It was previously reported that to use the Starlink, the antenna must be located within 500 miles of a ground station. But Speidel says people usually have to be closer — within 180 to 250 miles — to get a high-quality internet connection. The new gate in Fiji is about 500 miles from Tonga. Speidel notes that future Starlink satellites will use lasers to relay internet data between each other, meaning they won’t all need connections to nearby ground stations in the coming years. But at present, given the distance of this gate from Tonga, it is still unclear how effective the Fiji Gate will be for the people of Tonga. as musk chirp On February 25, “Starlink is somewhat incomplete for Tonga at the moment, but will improve greatly with activation of laser links between satellites.”

In general, satellite Internet systems share similar weaknesses. For example, volcanic ash – a layer that covered parts of Tonga after the last eruption – can cover and damage satellite dishes. Solar activity can hit satellites in orbit. “Even if we get every household in Tonga a Starlink station, we still have to plan for a power outage,” says Ilan Kellman, a researcher at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London.

Satellite access is also slower and often more expensive than cable internet, notes Nicole Staruselsky, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “Most places in the world wouldn’t use satellites if they had access to cable,” she says. Cables can be damaged, but they can usually be fixed relatively quickly. (In the case of Tonga, the repair was delayed because the nearest cable repair ship was moored at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, about 2,500 miles away, when the disaster occurred.) Regardless, “Once the cable is fixed, it will be as good as new.” Staroselsky says: They do a really good job of repairing the cables.” Instead of backing up the original cable with Starlink, she recommends backing it up with another subsea cable laying along a different route, which is “the standard in most parts of the world.”

But a second cable under the sea would be an expensive option for Tonga – and it could still break. “Even with backup cable, I have no doubts that satellite internet is a must at all times, given that our geographical location is highly vulnerable to volcanic activities,” says Tonga cable engineer. Of all the satellite options, he thinks Starlink would be the best, “if they were willing to help with the exorbitant capacity costs and satellite subscriptions.”

Things are off to a generous start – regional news reports that 50 Starlink terminals have been donated to Tonga, and other news reports that for now, Starlink services will be offered free of charge. But this situation will not continue until another faulty submarine cable is also replaced – a system that passes the Internet between Tongatapu (the main island of the archipelagic nation) and the outlying islands. This task could take up to the end of the year to complete, after which it looks like Starlink will start charging for its services. And it’s not cheap: subscriptions are $99 per month, and setting up a satellite dish and router costs $499. If the standard pricing system does not change in this case, it may not be affordable for many in Tonga, a country in disaster recovery mode.

Members of the private sector, including SpaceX, were able to put a foot in the door in stricken Tonga in the wake of problems with the state-run undersea internet cable, not a wholly unexpected development. Nor is it inherently worrisome. “But because they’re making money, there’s no reliability,” Kellman says. “If they don’t suddenly win from a Tonga, they will quit. If they suddenly decide that they are changing from $99 a month to $300 a month, they will.”

High prices are not the only consideration with regard to satellite internet. The unintended reflective nature of SpaceX’s 2,000 or so Starlink satellites — a number set to increase exponentially in the coming years if no legal restrictions are imposed — has not only hampered terrestrial astronomy efforts. It has also added a notable source of light pollution to some cultures, including some of Polynesian descent, for whom stars play a major role. Some consider this a desecration of a common space. “When addressing one natural disaster on Earth, we don’t want to create another in space,” says Aparna Venkatesan, a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco who assesses the cultural impact of “massive stars” like Starlink.

Ultimately, Internet connectivity problems in Tonga cannot be resolved by choosing between state-owned subsea cable and private satellite Internet. “You need both,” says Jacques-Samuel Prolon, executive vice president of CASIFIC. A variety of Internet options may be required. Future audit places such as Tonga are likely to require a collective effort, involving a range of partners both locally and internationally, public and private. There are no single saviors in this story.