What is Starlink and how could it work in Iran?

Elon Musk says he activated satellite broadband service after US eased internet sanctions amid Tehran's crackdown on protests

Starlink terminals are able to deliver a high-speed internet connection as long as they have a clear view of the sky. AFP
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When the US eased internet sanctions on Iran to ensure Iranians would continue to have access to information during the mass protest movement currently engulfing the country, Elon Musk tweeted that he was “activating Starlink”.

Mr Musk had said previously that SpaceX, the satellite company he founded in 2002 that operates Starlink, would seek an exemption from the US government to provide the broadband service to Iran.

As of Sunday, Starlink was activated in the country, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, quoted Mr Musk as saying.

Following Russian cyber attacks and the invasion on February 24, SpaceX sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine to bolster the country's access to the internet.

Mr Musk appears to be undertaking a similar effort now, as Iran grapples with protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in the custody of the morality police after allegedly failing to cover her hair properly.

What is Starlink?

Starlink is SpaceX's network of about 3,000 low-orbit satellites designed to deliver high-speed internet services to the world, particularly remote and rural locations.

Subscribers can engage in data-hungry online activities — gaming, streaming, video calls and more — that would otherwise be impossible.

Starlink satellites orbit the planet at a much closer distance than typical satellites, making high-data-rate activities easier to support.

A Starlink kit has “everything you need to get online in minutes”, the company says. Users who sign up for the service receive a kit that includes the Starlink terminal and base, a router, a power supply and cables.

The terminal is self-orientating and can easily connect to the internet as long as it has a clear view of the sky.

The residential Starlink package costs $110 per month, with a one-time hardware fee of $599. The company also offers a Starlink for motorhomes package, “ideal for customers travelling to locations where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable”.

SpaceX told US regulators earlier this year that Starlink users had surpassed 400,000.

How can it be used in Iran?

The easing of US internet sanctions against Tehran is designed to circumvent Iran's censorship and surveillance tools.

The move, which comes after Iran cut web access to about 80 million residents, included updated guidance that allows companies to offer their platforms and services to people inside the country.

Starlink would be able to beam internet access to people inside Iran, allowing them to bypass the country's censorship networks and share information about the violent crackdown as well as help them mobilise or communicate with friends and family.

However, a significant obstacle faces SpaceX and those inside Iran looking to use Starlink.

Because the Starlink terminals are hardware-based, Iran would first need to allow them to enter the country. That is highly unlikely in today's political climate.

Without giving details, Mr Sadjadpour suggested the issue was “surmountable”.

Mr Musk's company received permission from Ukraine to deliver 15,000-plus Starlink terminals earlier this year. The service has been credited with keeping Ukraine's communications networks afloat and foiling Russian jammers.

However, the billionaire said on October 14 that his company was losing almost $20 million a month on providing the service to Ukraine and could not afford to do so indefinitely. Pentagon officials confirmed receiving a request for funding from Mr Musk and said they were "assessing our options".

This image shows the first 60 Starlink satellites launched into orbit on May 23, 2019. They are still in their stacked configuration, just prior to being deployed. Courtesy SpaceX
Updated: October 15, 2022, 5:59 AM