Elon Musk’s Internet Starlink becomes a lifeline for Ukrainians

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

The SpaceX-operated satellite Internet service that CEO Elon Musk touted early in the war has emerged as a lifeline for many areas of the country, with more than 10,000 satellite dishes in service and more to come.

“This is not an ideal internet,” said Dmytro Zinchuk, head of network operations for internet provider Freenet, which mainly serves the area around Kyiv and western and northern Ukraine. “But still when there is no connection, Starlink is just a lifesaver 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 rush to get as many customers back online as possible in areas that have suffered heavy Russian bombing. This can mean connecting hundreds of people to a single household terminal.

Starlink satellite internet systems arrive in Ukraine.
Starlink satellite internet systems arrive in Ukraine. Serhiy Prytula Charitable Foundation

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

Most basic Starlink kits donated to Ukraine include a 23-inch wide receiving dish that needs to be mounted outside and a cable that plugs into 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 Kyiv-based Starlink aficionado Oleg Kutkov said in a phone interview that he often gets download speeds of 200 megabits per second, a speed that’s fast enough for most, if not for everyone, the home use of the Internet. Americans usually pay $110 a month for the service.

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

Andrii Nabook, a senior official at Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, a government agency with a broad mandate on technology issues, said in a Facebook Messenger interview that his office has donated about 200 handsets to local suppliers since the start of the war. He and his team traveled to the city of Chernihiv, north of Kiev, in early April after the retreat of Russian forces to set up the satellite dishes.

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

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

Satellite internet has been around for decades, but has generally been used by the military or as a last resort for rural areas that have trouble getting reliable broadband connections. But in recent years, the burgeoning space industry opened the door to orbital constellations of smaller satellites capable of providing services, including Starlink and a rival service from AmazonKuiper project.

Damage to infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
Damage to infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.Courtesy of Andria Nabok

In Ukraine, Starlink’s technology has found a place where it can prove its worth, especially when used in ways other than it was intended. During its invasion, Russia has constantly attacked Communications infrastructure of Ukraine with military weapons and cyber attacks.

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

“When you destroy all connective fiber optic cables connecting cities and blow up all cell towers, you quickly isolate communications in a given area,” he said in a telephone interview. “By distributing these satellites, 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 okay.

In a Telegraph Mail on April 19, Fedorov said that 10,000 Starlink terminals were operating in the country. He also has he tweeted Wednesday that Starlink had registered an office in Ukraine.

Terminals come from a mixed bag of sources. A spokesman for the US Agency for International Development said it spent about $800,000 to deliver 5,175 to the Ukrainian government – it bought about a quarter and Starlink donated the rest – plus another 175 to others in the country. The Polish oil company PKN Orlen has donated some, but the company didn’t answer questions about how many. Nabook, the official at Ukraine’s digital transformation ministry, said his agency has received Starlink donations from multiple European Union allies, though he declined to say from which countries or from how many terminals.

Getting them into the country is another challenge. Maria Pysarenko, spokeswoman for the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, a non-profit group led by a former political rival by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he said he introduced about 20 Starlinks through a relatively secret process.

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

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Starlink has some limitations.

Most commercial satellite Internet receivers broadcast a signal that can be easily geolocated with widely available technology, said Frank Backes, senior vice president of Kratos, a military contractor and chairman of Space ISAC, a non-profit group that shares information on cybersecurity threats to the space industry. This can make a Starlink user in a disputed area vulnerable to attack.

And Starlink equipment can be damaged directly.

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

As the invasion begins, in one of the most destructive cyber attacks of the war, the hackers remotely deleted satellite modems that served the Eastern European customers of satellite Internet company Viasat. Zhora previously told reporters that Russia was responsible for that hack and that it significantly impacted Ukrainian military communications in the early days of the fighting.

But when Starlink devices in Ukraine faced an electromagnetic attack in March, they fared much better, US military officials said in a conference last week. The 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 Space ISAC.

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

“It’s phenomenal what SpaceX has done,” Coggins said