Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites won’t solve Iran’s internet censorship

Elon Musk is suggesting once again that its business interests can solve a high-profile crisis: This time, the SpaceX CEO says Starlink satellite internet can ease Iran’s digital crackdown on ongoing anti-government protests. Iranian dissidents and their supporters around the world cheered Musk’s announcement that Starlink is now theoretically available in Iran, but experts say the plan is far from a panacea for censorship.

Musk’s latest move came after Iran responded to the recent wave of nationwide protests with a large-scale disruption of the country’s internet access. On Sept. 23, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the United States was easing restrictions on technology exports to help counter Iranian state censorship efforts.

Musk, ready to pounce, fast he answered: “Activating Starlink…”

Predictably, Musk’s dramatic tweet sparked a frenzy. Within a day, venture capitalist and longtime Musk backer Shervin Pishevar was already suggesting Musk had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The very thought of Starlink “activating” an uncensored Internet for millions during a time of Middle Eastern political turmoil was an instant PR coup for Musk.

In Iran, however, the idea of ​​a benevolent American billionaire broadcasting freedom to Iran via satellite has derailed the demands of reality, especially physics. Anyone who wants to use Starlink, the satellite Internet service provider operated by Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, needs a special dish to send and receive Internet data.

“I don’t think it’s a very practical solution due to the problem of smuggling in land terminals.”

While it is possible to smuggle Starlink hardware into Iran, bringing a significant amount of satellite dishes into Iran would be an incredible feat, especially now that the Iranian government has been notified of the plan on Twitter.

Todd Humphreys, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on satellite communication, said: “I don’t think it’s a very practical solution because of the problem of smuggling in land terminals.”

The idea is not unprecedented. In Ukraine, after the Russian invasion cut off Internet access, Musk’s deployment of satellite dishes earned him the admiration of the international press and a bevy of lucrative government contracts. In Ukraine, however, Starlink has been welcomed by a deeply pro-American government desperate for technological aid from the West. US government agencies were able to ship the necessary hardware with the full logistical cooperation of the Ukrainian government.

This is, at least, not the case in Iran, where the government is unlikely to condone importing a technology explicitly intended to undermine its own power. While Musk’s claim that orbiting Starlink satellites are activated over Iran may be true, the idea that uncensored internet connectivity is something that can be flipped like a light switch certainly isn’t. Without ground-based dishes to communicate with satellites, it’s a meaningless step: technologically equivalent to giving a speech to an empty room.

Humphreys, who has previously consulted for Starlink, explained that due to the specialized nature of Starlink hardware, it is doubtful that the Iranians could create a do-it-yourself alternative. “It’s not like you can build a homebrew receiver,” he told her. “It’s a very complicated signal structure with a very broadband signal. Even a research organization would struggle.

Musk is notoriously disinterested in the constraints imposed by reality, but he seems to recognize the problem to some extent. On a September 25th tweetsCarnegie Endowment for International Peace Fellow Karim Sadjadpour wrote: “I spoke to @elonmusk about Starlink in Iran, he gave me permission to share this: ‘Starlink is now activated in Iran. It requires the use of in-country terminals, which I suspect [Iranian] the government won’t support it, but if someone can bring terminals to Iran, it will work.’”

Not even the implausibility stopped Musk fans. A tweet from a senior member of the Atlantic Council purporting to document an already successfully hidden Starlink dish in Iran it turned out to be a 2020 photobelonging to a A man from Idaho who had a Persian rug.

Fandom – and the Star Power it’s connected to – may be the point here. Given the hurdles, Musk’s Starlink aspirations can best be understood in the context of his spectacularly unfulfilled past claims, rather than anything akin to the rapid adoption of Starlink in Ukraine. Musk’s penchant for Internet virality has become a key component of his business operations. He has repeatedly made bold statements, usually on Twitter, that a technology he happens to produce is the key to solving a global crisis. Whether it’s Thai children stuck in a waterlogged cavethe Covid-19 pandemic or America’s faltering transit infrastructureMusk has repeatedly offered tech solutions that are both clearly implausible, failed to executeor a mixture of both.

It’s not alone the lack of dishes in Iranian homes. Musk’s plan is further complicated by Starlink’s reliance on ground stations — communications facilities that allow SpaceX satellites to connect to Earth’s Internet infrastructure from orbit. While upgraded Starlink satellites may no longer need these ground stations in the foreseeable future, today’s network still largely requires them to serve a country as large as Iran, said University of Texas professor Humphreys. Again, Iran is unlikely to approve the construction of American-owned satellite installations within its borders defense contractor.

Humphreys suggested that ground stations built in a neighboring country could provide some level of connection, albeit at a reduced speed, but still not going over the hump of any Iranian who wants to connect to the Internet. need a $550 kit with “Starlink” emblazoned on the box. While Humphreys added that he hoped a slow trickle of Starlinks terminals could help Iranian dissidents over time, he said: “I don’t think in the short term this will impact the unrest in Iran.”

Alp Toker, director of Internet monitoring and censorship group NetBlocks, noted that many Iranians already watch banned satellite TV channels through smuggled antennas, meaning that smuggling Starlink antennas is feasible in theory. While he praised the idea of ​​bringing Starlink to Iran as “credible and useful” in the long run, the difficulty in sourcing Starlink’s specialized equipment means that access to Musk’s satellites remains “a solution for the few”, not a contrasting censorship on a demographic scale. .

While future versions of the Starlink system may be able to communicate with more accessible devices such as mobile phones, Toker said: “As far as we know, this is not possible with the current generation of kits, and it won’t be until then that Starlink or similar platforms could simply “turn on” the Internet in a country in the sense that most people understand.”

Even with Iran’s culture of illegal satellite TV, these experts have warned that a Starlink connection could endanger Iranians. Rose Croshier, policy researcher at the Center for Global Development, noted the risks: “A word of caution: TV antennas are passive – they don’t transmit – so a Starlink terminal (which receives and transmits data) in a crowd of satellite dishes illegal ones would still be easily found by the Iranian authorities”.

“I don’t think this will impact the unrest in Iran in the short term.”

The plan faces additional land obstacles. The complex bi-directional nature of satellite connections is part of the reason why they are subject to international regulation, particularly through the International Telecommunication Union, of which both the United States and Iran are members. Croshier pointed to a Card 2021 on the use of satellite Internet by the Asia Development Bank, which explained how “US-based entities such as Starlink … require regulatory approval from the FCC and the ITU” and that “the provision of customer services will require regulatory approval in each country in which it operates.” Mahsa Alimardani, senior Middle East researcher at Article19, a free speech advocacy group, tweeted that even if Starlink could broadcast the Internet to Iranians in a meaningful way, the company would face International Telecommunication Union consequences if it did so without Iranian approval – approval it is unlikely it will ever get.

Therefore there I am sanctions versus Iran. Blinken, the secretary of state, has announced a relaxation of technology exports, but restrictions on trade with Iran remain a serious obstacle. “There are a number of human rights-related sanctions against Iranian actors in the IT space under a sanctions authority called SEVERITY which complicate all of this beyond the questions raised whether Iran would allow Starlink terminals into the country,” explained Brian O’Toole, a senior member of the Atlantic Council and an expert on global sanctions. The relaxed rules would still require a special license for the l use of Starlink in Iran, said O’Toole, which he doubts would be allowed: “A lot of this Starlink stuff doesn’t seem very likely to do much, from my point of view.”

Starlink — or a competitor — may one day bring unlimited networking to Iran and other countries where online dissent is stifled, but for today’s Iranian protesters, the reality far outweighs the PR punch of a tweet. of two words.