Elon Musk said Saturday afternoon that SpaceX has activated Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine and that the company is sending internet terminals to the country. It was not immediately clear how widely available the service would be, whether it would be free, or how the company would be getting the terminals to the country.
“@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars—Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space—Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand,” Mykhailo Federovl, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, tweeted at Musk Saturday morning. Musk responded Saturday afternoon that “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”
Starlink is the low-Earth orbit internet service that SpaceX has been building out for the past several years. It is a constellation of connected satellites that, in theory, will be able to provide high-speed internet to large swaths of the world. So far, SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 of these satellites; it put nearly 100 satellites into orbit this week alone on two separate launches. The entire constellation is planned to have more than 4,000 satellites when complete.
Starlink differs from other satellite internet services because they are in low-Earth orbit rather than geostationary orbit, which allows them to provide faster internet speeds (because the signal doesn’t have to go as far.) In order to connect to Starlink, customers need a terminal, which is essentially a small satellite dish that receives the internet signal.
In theory, Starlink could be useful for a situation like the one currently happening in Ukraine. It does not rely on traditional internet infrastructure and thus cannot be easily cut off (though the terminals will need to be powered). This makes it potentially more resistant to censorship and cyberattacks / physical attacks on terrestrial internet infrastructure. Big internet monitoring companies have said that overall internet traffic in Ukraine has fallen drastically as the war has raged on, though it’s unclear whether this is because of widespread outages, mass migration, general chaos associated with war, or a mixture of all three.
The service is currently still in beta in the United States, and is an interesting but expensive product. It costs $100 per month for download speeds of about 100 Mbps (plus a $500 fee for the terminal), which is much faster service than can be purchased in many rural parts of America. But so far the service has been plagued by outages and intermittent connectivity while the terminal “switches” between satellites. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced Starlink Premium, a higher tier of service that uses a bigger antenna and offers speeds of up to 500 Mbps at a steep cost. The antenna will cost $2,500 and the service will cost $500 per month.