No, Elon Musk's Starlink Probably Won’t Fix Iranian Internet Censorship

Elon Musk is once again suggesting his business interests can solve a high-profile crisis: This time, the SpaceX CEO says Starlink satellite internet can alleviate Iran’s digital crackdown against ongoing anti-government protests. Iranian dissidents and their supporters around the world cheered Musk’s announcement that Starlink is now theoretically available in Iran, but experts say the plan is far from a censorship panacea.

Musk’s latest headline-riding gambit came after Iran responded to the recent rash of nationwide protests with large-scale disruption of the country’s internet access. On September 23, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced the U.S. was easing restrictions on technology exports to help counter Iranian state censorship efforts.

Musk, ready to pounce, quickly replied: “Activating Starlink …”

Predictably, Musk’s dramatic tweet set off a frenzy. Within a day, venture capitalist and longtime Musk-booster Shervin Pishevar was already suggesting Musk had earned the Nobel Peace Prize. Just the thought of Starlink “activating” an uncensored internet for millions during a period of Middle Eastern political turmoil was an instant public relations coup for Musk.

In Iran, though, the notion of a benevolent American billionaire beaming freedom to Iran by satellite is derailed by the demands of reality, specifically physics. Anyone who wants to use Starlink, the satellite internet service provider operated by Musk’s rocketry concern, SpaceX, needs a special dish to send and receive internet data.

“I don’t think it’s much of a practical solution because of the problem of smuggling in the ground terminals.”

While it may be possible to smuggle Starlink hardware into Iran, getting a meaningful quantity of satellite dishes into Iran would be an incredible undertaking, especially now that the Iranian government has been tipped off to the plan on Twitter.

Todd Humphreys, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on satellite communication, said, “I don’t think it’s much of a practical solution because of the problem of smuggling in the ground terminals.”

The idea is not without precedent. In Ukraine, after the Russian invasion disrupted internet access, the deployment of Musk’s satellite dishes earned him international press adulation and a bevy of lucrative government contracts. In Ukraine, though, Starlink was welcomed by a profoundly pro-American government desperate for technological aid from the West. U.S. government agencies were able to ship the requisite hardware with the full logistical cooperation of the Ukrainian government.

This is not, to say the very least, the case in Iran, where the government is unlikely to condone the import of a technology explicitly meant to undermine its own power. While Musk’s claim that Starlink’s orbiting satellites are activated over Iran may be true, the notion that censorship-free internet connectivity is something that can be flipped on like a light switch is certainly not. Without dishes on the ground to communicate with the satellites, it’s a meaningless step: technologically tantamount to giving a speech to an empty room.

Humphreys, who has previously done consulting work for Starlink, explained that because of the specialized nature of Starlink hardware, it’s doubtful Iranians could craft a DIY alterative. “It’s not like you can build a homebrew receiver,” he said. “It’s a very complicated signal structure with a very wideband signal. Even a research organization would have a hard time.”

Musk is famously uninterested in the constraints imposed by reality, but he seems to acknowledge the problem to some degree. In a September 25 tweet, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Karim Sadjadpour wrote, “I spoke w/ @elonmusk about Starlink in Iran, he gave me permission to share this: ‘Starlink is now activated in Iran. It requires the use of terminals in-country, which I suspect the [Iranian] government will not support, but if anyone can get terminals into Iran, they will work.’”

Implausibility hasn’t stopped Musk’s fans, either. One tweet from a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council purporting to document a Starlink dish already successfully secreted into Iran turned out to be a photo from 2020, belonging to an Idaho man who happened to have a Persian rug.

The fandom — and the starpower it’s attached to — might be the point here. Given the obstacles, Musk’s Starlink aspirations may be best understood in the context of his past spectacular, spectacularly unfulfilled claims, rather than something akin to Starlink’s rapid adoption in Ukraine. Musk’s penchant for internet virality has become a key component of his business operations. He has repeatedly made bold pronouncements, typically on Twitter, that a technology he happens to manufacture is the key to cracking some global crisis. Whether it’s Thai children stuck in a waterlogged cave, the Covid-19 pandemic, or faltering American transit infrastructure, Musk has repeatedly offered technological solutions that are either plainly implausible, botched in execution, or a mixture of both.

It’s not just the lack of dishes in Iranian homes. Musk’s plan is further complicated by Starlink’s reliance on ground stations: communications facilities that allow the SpaceX satellites to plug into earthbound internet infrastructure from orbit. While upgraded Starlink satellites may no longer need these ground stations in the near future, the network of today still largely requires them to service a country as vast as Iran, said Humphreys, the University of Texas professor. Again, Iran is unlikely to approve the construction within its borders of satellite installations owned by an American defense contractor.

Humphreys suggested that ground stations built in a neighboring country could provide some level of connection, albeit at reduced speed, but that still doesn’t get over the hump of every Iranian who wants to get online needing a $550 kit with “Starlink” emblazoned on the box. While Humphreys added that he was hopeful that a slow trickle of Starlinks terminals could aid Iranian dissidents over time, he said, “I don’t think in the short term this will have an impact on the unrest in Iran.”

Alp Toker, director of the internet monitoring and censorship watchdog group NetBlocks, noted that many Iranians already watch banned satellite television channels through contraband dishes, meaning the smuggling of Starlink dishes is doable in theory. While he praised the idea of bringing Starlink to Iran as “credible and worthwhile” in the long term, the difficulty in sourcing Starlink’s specialized equipment means that accessing Musk’s satellites remains “a solution for the few,” not a counter to population-scale censorship.

While future versions of the Starlink system might be able to communicate with more accessible devices like handheld phones, Toker said, “As far as we know this isn’t possible with the current generation of kit, and it won’t be until then that Starlink or similar platforms could simply ‘switch on’ internet in a country in the sense that most people understand.”

Even with Iran’s culture of bootleg satellite TV, these experts warned that a Starlink connection could endanger Iranians. Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, noted the risks: “A word of caution: TV dishes are passive — they don’t transmit — so a Starlink terminal (that both receives and transmits data) in a crowd of illegal satellite dishes would still be very findable by Iranian authorities.”

“I don’t think in the short term this will have an impact on the unrest in Iran.”

The plan faces further terrestrial hurdles. The complex two-way nature of satellite connections is part of why they’re subject to international regulation, most notably through the International Telecommunication Union, of which both the United States and Iran are members. Croshier pointed to a 2021 paper on satellite internet usage by the Asia Development Bank that explained how “US-based entities such as Starlink … require regulatory approval from the FCC as well the ITU” and that “service provision to customers will require regulatory approval in every country of operation.” Mahsa Alimardani, a senior Middle East researcher at Article19, a free expression advocacy group, tweeted that even if Starlink could beam internet to Iranians in a meaningful way, the company would face consequences from the International Telecommunications Union if it did so without Iranian approval — approval it is unlikely to ever get.

Then there are sanctions against Iran. Blinken, the secretary of state, announced a relaxation of tech exports, but the restrictions on trade with Iran remain a serious obstacle. “There are a host of human rights related sanctions on Iranian actors in the IT space under a sanctions authority called GHRAVITY that complicate any of this beyond the questions raised of whether Iran would allow Starlink terminals in country,” explained Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and expert on global sanctions. The relaxed rules would still require a special license for Starlink use in Iran, O’Toole said, which he doubts would be granted: “Much of this Starlink stuff doesn’t appear terribly likely to do much, from my point of view.”

Starlink — or a competitor — may one day bring unfettered net uplinks to Iran and other countries where online dissent is choked out, but for today’s Iranian protesters, the realities far exceed the PR punch of a two-word tweet.

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