Elon Musk's Starlink internet becomes a lifeline for Ukrainians

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Parts of war-torn Ukraine that have little or no internet service have found an alternative: emergency Starlink receivers.

The SpaceX-run satellite internet service that CEO Elon Musk touted at the start of the war has emerged as a lifeline for many areas of the country, with over 10,000 dish antennas in service and more on the way.

“This is not an ideal internet,” said Dmytro Zinchuk, the head of network operations for the internet provider Freenet, which mostly serves the area around Kyiv and western and northern Ukraine. “But still when there is no connection at all, Starlink is just a salvation for people who have been without connection for many weeks.”

He said his company has so far integrated five government-donated Starlink terminals in its mad dash to get as many customers back online as possible in areas that faced heavy Russian bombardment. That can mean wiring hundreds of people to a terminal meant for a single household.

Starlink satellite internet systems arrive in Ukraine.  (Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation)
Starlink satellite internet systems arrive in Ukraine. (Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation)

“We are well aware that Starlink is not really created for this, but we managed to launch 150+ subscribers on one Starlink,” Zinchuk said in an interview on the messaging app Telegram.

Most of the basic Starlink kits donated to Ukraine include a 23-inch-wide receiver dish that needs to be mounted outside, and a cord that connects to a simple router that projects a Wi-Fi internet signal (most use a circular dish but some newer ones are rectangular). Internet speeds vary, but one Starlink enthusiast in Kyiv, Oleg Kutkov, said in a phone interview that he often gets 200 megabits per second download speeds — a speed that is fast enough for most, if not all, household internet use. Americans usually pay $110 a month for the service.

Starlink relies on signals beamed to and from a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites, unlike competitors whose satellites orbit the planet at much higher altitudes. That generally leads to faster and more reliable service, though NASA has warned that more Starlink satellites could interfere with its mission to monitor asteroids.

Andrii Nabook, a senior official in Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation, a government agency with a broad mandate over tech issues, said in an interview over Facebook Messenger that his office has donated about 200 receivers to local providers since the war started. He and his team traveled to the city of Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, in early April after Russian forces retreated, to set up the dish antennas.

The ministry has also donated Starlink receivers to schools, hospitals, village governments and fire departments, a spokesperson said in an email.

After Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's digital transformation minister, tweeted an open request in late February for Musk to send receivers, Musk tweeted that the company would.

Satellite internet has been around for decades, but it’s generally been either used by militaries or as a last resort for rural areas that have trouble getting reliable broadband connections. But in recent years, the booming space industry has opened the door for orbital constellations of smaller satellites that can provide service, including Starlink and a rival service from Amazon, Project Kuiper.

Infrastructure damage in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. (Courtesy Andrii Nabok)
Infrastructure damage in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. (Courtesy Andrii Nabok)

In Ukraine, Starlink’s technology has found a place where it can prove itself, especially being used in ways other than how it was intended. Throughout its invasion, Russia has consistently attacked Ukrainian communications infrastructure with both military weapons and cyberattacks.

Michael Schwille, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that a number of factors are working in Starlink’s favor, including its ease of use and relatively high speeds, its ability to defend against signal jamming attacks, a U.S. program to ship thousands of receivers to Ukraine, and the fact that the company has waived its significant user fees for Ukrainians.

“When you destroy all of the connective fiber optic cables that connect cities, and you blow up all the cellphone towers, you quickly isolate communications in a given area,” he said in a phone interview. “With the distribution of these satellites, the Ukrainians are setting up these stations in places that have been disrupted. And now they can text and call loved ones and know they’re all right.”

In a Telegram post on April 19, Fedorov said that 10,000 Starlink terminals were operational in the country. He also tweeted Wednesday that Starlink had registered an office in Ukraine.

The terminals have come from a hodgepodge of sources. A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development said it has spent about $800,000 delivering 5,175 of them to the Ukrainian government — it purchased about a quarter of them, and Starlink donated the rest — plus an additional 175 to others in the country. The Polish oil company PKN Orlen has donated some, but the company didn’t respond to questions about how many. Nabook, the official at the Ukrainian ministry of digital transformation, said his agency had received Starlink donations from multiple European Union allies, though he declined to say from which countries or how many terminals.

Getting them into the country is another challenge altogether. Maria Pysarenko, spokesperson for the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, a nonprofit group headed by a former political rival of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said it has brought in about 20 Starlinks through a relatively secretive process.

“You can’t buy them in bulk or send them directly to Ukraine,” she said. “So one of our volunteers, who has a good network of contacts in the U.S., asks different people to search for and buy Starlinks separately, one by one. Then, they send them individually to Poland. There, some more of his good acquaintances collect all the Starlinks and send them to Lviv to our logistics center. From there, the boxes go to Kyiv.”

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Starlink does have some limitations.

Most commercial satellite internet receivers broadcast a signal that can be easily geolocated with widely available technology, said Frank Backes, a senior vice president of Kratos, a military contractor, and the chair of Space ISAC, a nonprofit group that shares information about cybersecurity threats to the space industry. That can make a Starlink user in a contested area vulnerable to attack.

And Starlink equipment can be directly damaged.

Victor Zhora, a top Ukrainian cybersecurity official, said in a news conference Wednesday that a handful of Starlink units have been damaged by Russian shelling, though it wasn’t clear if they had been specific targets. And like terrestrial internet infrastructure, satellite internet service also relies on computers that are vulnerable to hackers.

At the start of the invasion, in one of the most destructive cyberattacks of the war, hackers remotely wiped satellite modems that served Eastern European customers of the satellite internet company Viasat. Zhora had previously told reporters that Russia was responsible for that hack, and that it significantly impacted the Ukrainian military’s communications in the early days of the fighting.

But when Starlink devices in Ukraine were faced with an electromagnetic attack in March, they fared significantly better, U.S. military officials said at a conference last week. Engineers were able to quickly write and deploy a software patch to the receivers, which mitigated the attack, said Kevin Coggins, who heads Booz Allen Hamilton’s Positioning, Navigation, and Timing service, and is a member of the Space ISAC.

“You’ve got to have a way to distribute [the software update] to user terminals that you can’t physically touch, which SpaceX was able to do,” he said. “That’s not normal for space systems, to be able to do that,” he said.

“It’s phenomenal what SpaceX did,” Coggins said