Elon Musk launches Starlink connectivity for Ukraine – but it’s not without risk

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced the activation of Starlink internet service in Ukraine as the country suffered power outages and gaps in internet service due to Russia's invasion.
8 March 2022

Ukraine is Elon Musk’s Starlink latest customer base — but it comes with a risk. (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV / AFP)

  • With Russia invading Ukraine, internet connection has been gravely affected in cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv
  • Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system working in parts of Ukraine — raising the possibility of being targeted
  • Ukraine’s vice PM Mykhailo Fedorov emphasized that internet access is a critical component for those in Ukraine fighting to survive the invasion.

Two weeks ago Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, tweeted a plea to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk to help his country by bringing his Starlink satellite internet access, amidst the ongoing Russian invasion. At that point in time, Ukraine was already suffering with power outages and gaps in internet service.

For Fedorov and his administration, internet access is absolutely vital, especially for those in Ukraine fighting to survive the invasion. He must have heard Fedorov because in less than 24 hours, Elon Musk himself replied to Fedorov’s tweet saying, “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” By late Monday evening, Fedorov tweeted a photo of an army truck, seemingly loaded with base stations for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service, along with a simple message thanking Musk.

For context, Starlink is basically a satellite-based internet constellation intended to blanket the planet in high-speed broadband. Such a thing could potentially bring connectivity to billions of people who still lack reliable internet access. According to CNN, satellite-based internet has long provided a crucial backstop to land-based internet service, as it can remain active even when infrastructure on the ground is ravaged by war or natural disasters.

“It can also reach areas where ground-based infrastructure has yet to be installed. However, satellite internet traditionally had a reputation for spotty and slow connections,” the report added. What sets Starlink apart is the fact that it makes use of satellites that operate in low-Earth orbit — roughly 340 miles high, in SpaceX’s case — to provide continuous coverage, allowing for much faster upload and download speeds. 

As of January this year, Starlink — which SpaceX has worked to rapidly deploy over the past couple of years — had about 145,000 users in 25 countries. The company, led by Tesla’s chief, has also launched about 2,000 Starlink satellites and aims for thousands more, to continue blanketing the planet with internet connectivity

Elon Musk’s Starlink highly likely to be targeted

The lifeline Musk threw for Ukraine had a high probability for risk, though. So as a public service announcement, Elon Musk warned Ukraine users on Twitter that Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system working in some parts of Ukraine — and that the possibility of being targeted is high

“Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so [the] probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution,” Musk said in a tweet. In total, SpaceX had launched about 50 satellites to help aid the connectivity in Ukraine during the time of crisis. Reports claim that the satellites were sent aboard a Falcon 9 rocket and are using their own thrusters to move into operational orbits.