Elon Musk’s new satellites could sneak internet past the Taliban

Is this the key to beating digital repression?
Is this the key to beating digital repression?
Image: Reuters/Pablo Sanhueza
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Today, SpaceX and other satellite internet providers can’t easily sneak internet access into repressive countries with their permission—the technical and legal challenges are too difficult. But a new generation of laser-equipped spacecraft being developed by Elon Musk’s space company may solve some of those problems, allowing the internet to slip past iron curtains.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is an unprecedented approach to delivering internet from space—with 1,740 satellites launched about 500 miles above the planet, it is the biggest constellation out there. Currently in beta testing, it provides broadband connectivity to users below (when trees aren’t in the way. ) Starlink is now available in fourteen countries. But what if someone wanted to use Starlink in a country without permission from that government?

One key challenge to eluding censorship is technical: Starlink users need to be within several hundred miles of a ground station that is plugged into the internet, so the satellites can relay data back and forth between them. SpaceX is not going to be able to set up these stations in authoritarian countries, or likely many of their neighbors.

Enter the lasers

SpaceX is rolling out new satellites that may alleviate this technical challenge. The company halted Starlink launches in May to wait for new spacecraft that are equipped with optical laser communications, which have higher throughput than radio transmissions. If it works, the satellites will be able to link directly to each other more efficiently. That, in turn, means that instead of needing a ground station a few hundred miles away, a user could have their data sent back and forth through the Starlink network to a ground station anywhere.

“Lasers [sic] links alleviate ground station constraints, so data can go from say Sydney to London through space, which is ~40% faster speed of light than fiber & shorter path,” Musk tweeted.

If the system is up in 4 to 6 months, as Musk promises (and you should probably add some significant margin to that), dissidents could potentially be able to log into the global communications network to share their stories, report human rights violations, organize resistance, and undermine official narratives.

There are still some very practical obstacles. A Starlink terminal costs $500 and internet access is $99 a month, so any users will need a decent amount of cash in US dollars that they can transfer to SpaceX (it’s not clear if the company is plugged into the hawala system) or foreign backers to cover the costs. And Starlink’s pizza box-sized, motorized satellite dish won’t be easy to hide, so don’t expect them springing up on buildings in downtown Kabul.

There’s always politics, even in space

The other major challenge to delivering internet without permission are the legal rules for transmitting radio signals inside a given country. At least superficially, eliminating ground stations eliminates these countries’ political leverage. Asked what governments in these countries could do to cut off Starlink access, Musk says “they can shake their fist at the sky.”

And that will be true—in failed states like Afghanistan or Venezuela, or international pariahs like North Korea. But the reality is that the more powerful autocrats will be able to do much more than shake their fists at the sky.

SpaceX is unlikely, for example, to skirt regulatory rules in China, a country putting millions of its citizens into reeducation camps, while Musk’s company Tesla builds and sells electric cars there. Nor is it likely that SpaceX would try to skirt the borders of authoritarian countries like Iran that maintain international relationships with powerful countries. China imports significant amounts of oil from Iran, and might look unkindly on efforts to destabilize its government.

And satellite communication is no guarantee of secrecy. Sophisticated autocrats, or those with sophisticated allies, can attempt to track satellite transmissions. In 2012, the journalist Marie Colvin was killed in the Syrian civil war after the country’s armed forces tracked her satellite phone and targeted her. If Starlink becomes a common way to try to elude digital censorship, it won’t be long before repressive regimes (or mercenary technologists) develop the tools to hunt the network’s users.