Elon Musk wants to beat censors in Iran. What about India and China?

The Starlink network faces questions about free speech and telecom regulation
Elon Musk celebrates a Tesla factory opening with the Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong.
Elon Musk celebrates a Tesla factory opening with the Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong.
Photo: Aly Song (Reuters)
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Elon Musk’s plan to offer satellite internet service in Iran and Cuba is stressing his unusual definition of free speech.

“By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” Elon Musk explained in April, after signing a contract to purchase the social media network Twitter.

Musk got cold feet on that deal, but the serial entrepreneur still operates his own global telecommunications network, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

As anti-government protests have broken out in Iran, the theocratic regime there has done its best to shut down internet access and block its citizens from contacting the rest of the world. In response, Musk says he will make his satellite network operational there.

This, of course, would involve breaking the law in those countries.

“Providing service to Iran and Cuba is an interesting position for SpaceX, since presumably they would have to use black market channels to get ground terminals to people, and probably accept payment in contradiction of local laws—maybe using cryptocurrency?” said David Burbach, a professor of international relations at the Naval War College, speaking in his personal capacity. “SpaceX has previously said they would follow national laws.”

SpaceX did not respond to questions about the legality of its plans, or how it would it get terminals into either country.

How to break through a national firewall

When it comes to freedom of speech, few outside of Iran’s Supreme Council or the top ranks of Cuba’s Communist Party would object to allowing people to access information and communication services. That highlights how Musk’s simplistic definition of free speech catered to those who fear so-called “cancel culture,” but doesn’t do much when governments prevent speech and assembly.

The company has been praised by the Ukrainian government for deploying the Starlink network there as a measure to avoid Russia’s efforts to disrupt the country’s communications. But Ukraine’s government okayed the technology, and the US government’s logistics pipeline sent in the required user terminals. Now, it will be up to dissidents and their supporters to smuggle user terminals into these countries. (Unless, of course, some secret arm of the US government is quietly helping out.)

The decision to do business in Iran and Cuba raises questions about Starlink’s standards. In the past, SpaceX executives have told Quartz they have no plans to do business in either Russia or China, two other states with repressive governments and state-controlled media. Those governments have too much power to cause problems for SpaceX and Musk’s other interests, notably his car company Tesla, which makes and sells its vehicles in China.

The other markets Starlink needs to succeed

Starlink itself is by definition global, and to succeed as a business it must gain regulatory permission in countries around the world to serve more customers. The network, though still incomplete, is already being stressed by US uptake, while its capacity goes unused over much of the rest of the globe. But many potential Starlink markets sit in the gray area between US and western European speech norms and those that crackdown harshly on open expression.

Countries like India, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and others with strict restrictions on speech and internet access could be potentially lucrative markets for the service. Telecom analysts say regulators in those countries, already known as difficult places for foreign firms to do business, are likely to be non-plussed by the Iran and Cuba decisions.

There are other complications: Starlink depends mainly on ground stations to relay data from satellites to users and back again, at least until it launches more new satellites that can communicate with each other using lasers. Iran and Cuba won’t host ground stations, so users will need to transmit through those in other countries. That will mean worse service, as we’ve seen in parts of Ukraine that are far from stations in Poland, Lithuania and Turkey, and could also put political pressure on nearby countries that do host them.

Providing service over the objection of local governments “will likely make Starlink an even bigger target for state-sponsored cyberattacks—a hefty challenge for companies big or small,” notes Caleb Henry, a satellite analyst at Quilty Analytics.

And then there’s the finances. SpaceX loses money on every Starlink terminal it sells, but the service itself isn’t cheap, with start-up costs in the neighborhood of $500 and monthly service fees of $100. Even if users in restrictive countries can figure out how to pay SpaceX, they may face difficulties coming up with the money to do so. Barring some kind of subsidy or change in business model, it’s hard to see many customers being able to afford the service in these countries.