Elon Musk tends to be outrageous on Twitter, and the Ukrainian government may have found a way to take advantage of him to help the country stay online if the internet went out during the Russian invasion.
Although internet access has been relatively stable so far, fears of widespread outages have been raised in recent days, as Russia has directed its attacks on the country’s telecom infrastructure, including TV towers.
Late Monday, a truck of equipment arrived from Starlink — Musk’s satellite internet company, SpaceX. Inside were elegant black boxes, filled with flat white dishes that allowed users to always stay connected. The equipment is perfectly placed for the photos, which are 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 that most types of internet access require. But it’s hard to gauge how resilient the Starlink backup system can be for the country as a whole 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 the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, only one truck of Starlink groups has arrived in Ukraine. Now the ministry is raising funds for the purchase of additional equipment, according to Forbes Ukraine. Ukraine is also considering buying second-hand Starlink devices.
A key figure behind this initiative, 31-year-old Minister of Digital Transformation Mikhailo Fedorov – Requested Musk for help on Twitter Feb 26.
The next day, Musk, the world’s richest person with a net worth of $239 billion, activated Starlink service in Ukraine and promised to send more stations.
A standard Starlink set costs $499, according to Business Insider. Network subscription $99.
So far, the system appears to be helping some Ukrainians keep in touch. The general stability of Ukrainian Internet access allows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and ordinary citizens to inform the outside world about the Russian invasion.
However, internet connectivity was affected in the southern and eastern parts of the country as the fighting intensified. Ukrainian officials say Russia won’t be able to turn off internet access for the entire country, and Doug Maduri, director of internet analysis at Kentek, previously told The Record that the country’s multiple terrestrial fiber connections to the West made it difficult to treat Ukraine as a whole offline.
Many Ukrainians fear they could be cut off from the world if Russian forces destroy the critical infrastructure responsible for television and the Internet.
At the same time, Ukraine has also taken steps to limit Russian forces’ access to networks, including ordering its own phone companies – Kyivstar, Vodafone and Lifecell – to close network access to phones from Russia and Belarus. This means that forces from those countries cannot send misleading messages or spread false information over phone calls, according to Ukraine’s state service responsible for protecting information.
Russia, in turn, has already taken some steps to target communications infrastructure: on March 1, Russian missiles hit a television tower in Kyiv, disrupting some access to news and broadcasts.
Some people in Ukraine are already testing Starlink.
For example, Ukrainian engineer Oleg Kutkov said in an interview with Verge that his Starlink dish received a signal from one of the SpaceX satellites in just 10 seconds. “I honestly couldn’t believe it would work,” Kotkoff told The Verge.
The Ukrainian state-owned railway company Ukrzaliznytsia also received the terminal. Ukrzaliznytsia is notorious for its poor Internet connection, but first it plans to use Starlink only for military purposes.
“We have many executive headquarters that are moving around the country, and they need the Internet,” Ukrzaliznytsia CEO Alexander Kamyshin said in an interview with Forbes.
Another possibility is Starlink’s use in military or regional defense, according to the Ministry of Digital Transformation.
Other Ukrainians can order their stations on the Starlink website, but it’s not clear how quickly they can receive them as Ukraine is struggling in an all-out war. In addition, it is difficult to leave the house due to the bombing and curfews imposed in many cities, including Kyiv and Odessa.
Satellite Internet is most useful for those who live in villages where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not connect. Internet connectivity in rural Ukraine was historically 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. A source in the Ukrainian government, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the negotiations, said one potential problem: The company was unable to obtain the necessary license to start the operation in Ukraine.
Musk faced similar licensing issues in India, as he tried to roll out internet services in the country in early 2021. However, as of January 15th. King 1,469 Starlink satellites are active and 272 will soon move into operational orbits.
Musk, the PayPal founder who made much of his fortune as Tesla’s CEO, is no stranger to controversy. His companies have been accused of overstepping regulatory boundaries and promoting a culture of toxicity, and Musk often weighs himself loudly on Twitter during times of crisis.
With only one truck of Starlink kits arriving in Ukraine so far, it’s not clear what the true value of his donation to Ukraine will be – but if Internet connections break down, Starlink can be a useful tool.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the company name Kentik.