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SpaceX Starlink in Ukraine – a Week Later

The Internet has been down in the city of Mariupol since March 2. If there is a Starlink terminal there, it is still online.

Ten Starlink satellites serving Odessa through ground stations in Turkey, Lithuania, and Poland

Last week I wrote about the arrival of a truckload of SpaceX Starlink terminals in Ukraine and their potential value to government and resistance leaders. A lot has happened in the ensuing week—this is an update.

Last week, using Mike Puchol’s Starlink tracking service, I found that users in Kyiv would have 100 percent uptime with connections through as many as nine satellites to ground stations in Turkey, Poland, and Lithuania. When the Turkish ground station was unreachable, it dropped to as few as five, but uptime remained 100%.

I’ve since used his service to check connectivity snapshots in three geographically dispersed cities—Odessa, Lviv, and Kharkiv. I always found between seven and ten satellites in service in Odessa and Lviv and between two and six in Kharkiv. This is not surprising since Lviv is west of Kyiv, hence closer to the Polish and Lithuanian ground stations, Odessa in the south is closer to the one in Turkey, and Kharkiv is to the east—near Russia.

Starlink Speedtest in Kyiv

Puchol’s simulation mode shows there should be 100% availability throughout the country at all times and, since there are few terminals, performance should be good. That was confirmed by an OOKLA Speedtest run by Oleg Kutkov in Kyiv. During the third quarter of 2021, OOKLA observed median upload and download speeds of 87.35 and 13.54 Mbps in the United States and as shown here, Kutkov observed much faster download speed and similar upload speed. The Kyiv test showed a “ping” time of 75 ms compared to a median “latency” of 44ms reported by OOKLA. I’m not sure if their reported “latency” is one-way or round trip. If the latter, they are comparable,

There have been several software updates since last week. Most importantly, Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX had enabled roaming in Ukraine so anyone with a terminal can transmit for a while then turn it off and move to another location or, if necessary, can remain online in a moving vehicle. In the same Tweet, Musk announced that they had reduced peak power consumption so the terminal could be powered by a car cigarette lighter. (There must have been some performance hit).

Musk also tweeted that “Some Starlink terminals near conflict areas were being jammed for several hours at a time,” and they were bypassing the jamming with a software update. He added that he was curious to see what they tried next—this sounds like “whack-a-mole.”

It’s noteworthy that in our “software-defined everything” world, SpaceX can make significant changes to the constellation with a software update. (The downside is illustrated in an over-the-air software hack of ViaSat modems).

Musk warned that Starlink terminals could be targeted and advised users to turn them on only when needed, to place an antenna as far away from people as possible, and to cover it with light camouflage. He also tweeted that some governments (not Ukraine) had asked him to block Russian news sources, but, as a “free-speech absolutist,” he refused to do so.

President Zelenskyy Tweeted that the second shipment of terminals was on its way after speaking with Musk.

In related news, Anonymous has declared cyberwar on Russia and there are Telegram channels for IT professionals in support of Ukraine, one of which is English-language.

Finally, there was also a PR tweet by Ukraine’s famed heavyweight champion boxers the Klitschko brothers posing with a couple of Starlink terminals.

Some Musk critics see his disaster-relief efforts or delivering terminals to Ukraine as publicity stunts of little practical value. Starlink terminals in Ukraine are terrific publicity, but they are also valuable tools for communication by political and resistance leaders if they are unable to access the Internet safely or it is blocked. For example, it has been reported that Mariupol is without electricity and water, and the Internet has been down since March 2. If there is a Starlink terminal there, it is still online.

Update Mar 10, 2022:

SpaceX has shipped the second truckload of terminals and portable power equipment.

Oleg Kutkov reported faster connectivity with a wired connection to the router instead of WiFi.

Update Mar 14, 2022:

Photos of Starlink terminals in various locations have been posted on Telegram’s Ukrainian IT Army and Facebook’s SpaceX Starlink in Ukraine groups, but little was said about their use and users.

Fifty of the square-antenna terminals from the second shipment have gone to the DTEK Group. Half of them will be used for support of Ukrainian energy infrastructure and half will go to DTEK businesses. Click here for more on DTEK’s war effort.

Update Mar 17, 2022:

The Internet in the port city of Mariupol has been down since March 2 and the city is reported to be without electricity, gas, and water. If there are any Starlink terminals in the city, they should have no trouble getting online. I’ve periodically checked connectivity there and found between two and six satellites in service. (The rare time it got down to two satellites, the connection was through the Lithuanian ground station).

Update Mar 19, 2022:

From the Washington Post: “A person familiar with Starlink’s effort in Ukraine, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there are more than 5,000 terminals in the country. We’d seen pictures of three truckloads before, but this is a whole new level. Enough for armed forces, infrastructure companies like DTEK, NGOs, and government leaders.

Update Mar 26, 2022:

DTEK’s power engineers have received another 170 Starlink satellite terminals from SpaceX. The terminals “will help the company’s power companies to maintain stable operation of power grids more efficiently and will help emergency repair crews to restore power as soon as possible.” This sounds like part of the 5,000 terminals mentioned above.

Update May 5, 2022:

It’s been over two months since I first wrote about Starlink terminals in Ukraine. At that time, a few hundred Starlink terminals had been delivered. Within a month there were 5,000 terminals and that was soon updated to 10,000. Now it’s being reported that there are 150,000 daily users and the Starlink app has been downloaded 215,000 times.

As predicted, Starlink has become an important government asset. This article shows some of the ways Starlink terminals are being used. The article is in Ukrainian, but the Google and Microsoft Translations are perfectly readable.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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