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Can Elon Musk provide internet service to Iranian dissidents?

his long-exposure image shows a trail of a group of SpaceX's Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay
Mariana Suarez
Can Starlink satellites bypass Iranian censorship?
Published

Elon Musk said he would seek permission from US regulators to offer satellite internet service in Iran in response to a request from a Persian researcher based in Germany.

Musk’s Starlink network deploys thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth to provide broadband internet connections to its users. The global nature of this network has often been seen as a way to help citizens of authoritarian states dodge censorship, but there are plenty of political and technical difficulties in store for SpaceX if it tries.

The first, which Musk references, are US prohibitions on providing high-tech services in Iran, part of the economic pressure campaign designed to halt Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. But the US has often encouraged efforts to reach dissidents and bypass government minders, from Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to Twitter during the so-called Green Revolution.

Starlink in Ukraine

Starlink has gotten plenty of attention this year for providing connectivity to the Ukrainian government after Russia invaded the country and attempted to cut off occupied territories from communication networks. While an impressive contribution, it relied mainly on political permission and encouragement from the Ukrainian government to operate.

In the case of Iran (or Cuba, or China, or Russia itself), Starlink would be providing connectivity in contravention of the local authorities. While Russian forces have had mixed results trying to track and shut down SpaceX Starlink ground terminals, it would likely be easier for governments to interdict users outside of an active war zone. Smuggling user terminals into Iran seems more challenging for SpaceX than getting them into Ukraine through a logistical pipeline of western military support.

The bigger challenge may be technical. Starlink relies on three pieces of hardware: A small terminal with a dish for the user, the satellites flying overhead, and larger permanent ground stations that plug into the internet itself. Ground stations need to be close enough to users—within hundreds of kilometers—for the system to work. In Ukraine, users are relying on stations in Poland, Lithuania, and Turkey, which has degraded service in the eastern part of the country. Iran is even further from any known Starlink ground stations, so the quality of service there may be limited unless nearby countries approve new relays—which could in turn attract Iran’s ire.

It is notable that newer Starlink satellites are said to communicate with each other using laser transmissions, which could eventually limit the need for ground stations.

The risks SpaceX faces

If Starlink becomes more explicit about connecting people over the objections of their governments, the risk rises that its spacecraft will be targeted by hackers, jammers, or even kinetic weapons deployed by these states. While Iran is not a considerable space power, Russia and China have those capabilities. China also has significant leverage over SpaceX through Tesla, Musk’s electric car company, which builds and sells tens of thousands of vehicles in China each year.

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