SpaceX’s Starlink internet service takes a different approach than most other internet services, one that allows it to operate in remote areas, disconnected from the grid, all around the world. That’s why it has so quickly become a part of aid efforts, be it in Fiji after a volcano eruption, Washington state after wildfires, or Ukraine, in the midst of a Russian invasion.
I’ve talked about Starlink’s benefits as a more traditional home internet service many times, including its speed and low latency, and many of those still hold true, but there are other aspects of Starlink that, quite frankly, make it one of the only options for a quick-response to an ongoing infrastructure outage. Those are its ease of setup and wordwide coverage.
The Starlink setup process essentially amounts to: find an area with a clear view of the sky to place the terminal, connect the data cable, and plug in the power cable. At that point, the terminal will take care of itself, connecting to satellites and providing a Wi-Fi network that local devices can connect to.
First, Starlink will automatically level itself to search for satellites overhead. Do NOT attempt to manually adjust your Starlink.
Next, Starlink will make an initial connection to the Starlink constellation and tilt to the optimum angle for satellite coverage – slightly north or south based on your location in the northern or southern hemisphere.
While it requires a clear view of the sky, the whole process only takes a few minutes to have high-speed, low latency internet available to people, and emergency services, in the area. This opens up communication in a time when local cell towers and internet services may be down.
The second aspect of Starlink that makes it the go-to service when there are major disasters and outages is its ability to operate basically anywhere. Starlink uses thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit that basically cover the Earth in a blanket of internet coverage. There are some limitations, as version 1 satellites cannot communicate directly between each other, and must communicate directly with both a user terminal and a Starlink ground station, but all the satellites currently launching have laser interconnects that allow them to communicate between satellites to a ground station hundreds or potentially thousands of miles from the end-user.
These interconnects are what will eventually allow Starlink to service planes, cruise ships, and even SpaceX’s own Dragon capsules.
Starlink service active in Ukraine
Back on February 26, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation, tweeted at Elon Musk, asking for support in the form of Starlink terminals. Musk quickly replied, saying the service was “now active” in Ukraine, and saying that there were more terminals en-route.
Just two days later, a load of Starlink terminals arrived:
Judging by the photograph, the terminals seem to be primarily, if not entirely, the original round terminals rather than the updated, squared off terminals. The two kits offer comperable performance, with the main differences being a separate power supply and an ethernet port on the original kit, while the updated kit integrates the router and power supply, and the cable from the dish is removeable.
This isn’t the first time Starlink dishes have been in the country, but it is the first time they have been useable. Engineer Oleg Kutkov purchased a terminal second hand to tear-down and reverse engineer it. Shortly after Musk tweeted that Starlink was active in the country, he gave the terminal another try. The Verge reported that, “SpaceX support reached out to him and told him his account should connect now.” And sure enough, he got a connection. Kutlov’s terminal, due to its rough shape after the tear down, is unable to track the satellites across the sky, but he currently has a strong fiber connection that hasn’t been interupted so far.
The infrastructure situation could change at any moment, as Kutlov told The Verge that a colleague saw Russia attack a TV tower in an attempt to disrupt communication.
On March 2, Ukraine’s vice prime minister returned to social media, once again thanking Musk for Starlink terminals, saying that Starlink “keeps our cities connected and emergency services saving lives!” While the terminals have been providing internet, they are still reliant on a power source, so this time Federov requested generators, saying “With Russian attacks on our infra, we need generators to keep Starlinks & life-saving services online – ideas? @Honda @ChampionGen @westinghouse @DuroMaxPower.”
Musk quickly replied with his recommendation of solar and batteries, while others shared their own recommendations and even tips for keeping Starlink terminal hidden.