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Elon Musk Internet: Not likely to change Starlink from Iranian internet censorship

ELON MUSK is advocating once more that a prominent situation can be resolved by his commercial interests: This time, the CEO of SpaceX claims that Starlink satellite internet can lessen Iran's continuous digital repression of anti-government demonstrations. Although experts say the proposal is far from a censorship panacea, Iranian dissidents and their sympathizers throughout the world applauded Musk's news that Starlink is now potentially available in Iran.

Musk's most recent attempt to get attention came after Iran severely disrupted its internet connectivity in response to the recent wave of nationwide demonstrations. In order to fight Iranian official censorship attempts, the United States loosened export limits on technology on September 23, according to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

elon musk internet

Musk's stunning post, as expected, sparked a frenzy. Within a day, longtime Musk supporter and venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar made the claim that Musk was deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was an instant public relations win for Musk just to imagine Starlink "activating" an unfettered internet for millions of people during a time of political unrest in the Middle East.

But in Iran, the expectations of reality, more precisely physics, derail the fantasy of a generous American billionaire sending freedom to Iran via satellite. To send and receive internet data, users of Starlink, a satellite internet service provider run by Elon Musk's rocket company SpaceX, need a particular dish.

Even if it could be possible to sneak Starlink equipment into Iran, doing so would be a tremendous challenge, especially now that the Iranian government has been made aware of the plot via Twitter.

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

The Iranian Dream: Do-It-Yourself Technology in Iran

THE IDEA HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. Musk received praise from the international press and a plethora of lucrative government contracts when his satellite dishes were installed in Ukraine following the Russian invasion's disruption of internet connectivity. But in Ukraine, a fiercely pro-American administration eager for Western technology assistance embraced Starlink. With the full logistical support of the Ukrainian government, U.S. government agencies were able to ship the necessary gear.

This isn't the case in Iran, to put it mildly, where the government is unlikely to support the introduction of a technology that is specifically intended to subvert its own authority. While it may be true that Starlink's circling satellites are turned on over Iran, as Musk claims, it is untrue that censorship-free internet connectivity can simply be turned on and off. It is a pointless step technologically equivalent to speaking to a vacant room without any ground-based dishes to connect to the satellites.

Humphreys, who has previously worked as a consultant for Starlink, indicated that it's unlikely that Iranians could make a do-it-yourself alternative due to the specialized nature of Starlink gear. It's not like you could make your own receiver, he remarked. It has a highly broad signal and a very complex signal structure. Even a research institution would struggle.

Musk is renowned for having no interest in the limitations imposed by reality, although he appears to be aware of the issue to some extent. Elon Musk gave me permission to share this: "Starlink is now enabled in Iran," tweeted Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Karim Sadjadpour in a tweet on September 25. If someone can get terminals into Iran, they will work, but it requires the usage of in-country terminals, which I assume the [Iranian] government will not accept.

Starlink: An Iranian-Based Technology

The impossibility hasn't deterred Musk's supporters either. One tweet purporting to show a Starlink dish that had previously been successfully smuggled into Iran was actually a photo from 2020 taken by an Idaho man who also happened to own a Persian rug.

The point might be the fandom and the star power it is associated with. Given the challenges, it may be easier to understand Musk's objectives for Starlink in the perspective of his previous, spectacularly unfulfilled claims than in the context of anything more akin to Starlink's rapid acceptance in Ukraine. The internet's propensity for virality has grown to be an important part of Musk's business strategy.

He frequently makes grandiose claims, usually on Twitter, that a technology he just so happens to produce is the solution to some major world problem. Musk has consistently proposed technology solutions that are either blatantly unrealistic, poorly executed or a combination of the two, whether the issue is Thai children trapped in a waterlogged cave, the Covid-19 pandemic, or failing American transit infrastructure.

Iranian houses don't just lack dishes, either. Starlink's reliance on communication facilities, which allow SpaceX satellites to connect to earthbound internet infrastructure from space, complicates Musk's strategy further. The network of today still primarily requires these ground stations to service a country as large as Iran, according to Humphreys, the University of Texas professor, even if updated Starlink satellites may not require them in the near future. Once more, Iran is unlikely to consent to the construction of American defense contractor-owned satellite sites inside its borders.

Humphreys' Point of View on the Future of Internet Service in Iran

Humphreys said that ground stations established in a neighboring nation could be able to offer some degree of connection, albeit at a slower rate, but that still doesn't get over the hurdle that every Iranian who wants to be online needs a $550 kit with "Starlink" printed on the box. Humphreys continued, "I don't think in the immediate term this will have an impact on the unrest in Iran," even if he expressed hope that a steady flow of Starlinks terminals could eventually help Iranian dissidents.

The importation of Starlink dishes is theoretically feasible, according to Alp Toker, director of the internet monitoring and censorship watchdog group NetBlocks, who added that many Iranians currently access restricted satellite television channels through illegal antennas. While he commended the notion of delivering Starlink to Iran in the long run as "credible and worthwhile," accessing Musk's satellites remains "a solution for the few," not a deterrent to population-scale censorship, due to the difficulty of obtaining the specialized equipment required for Starlink.

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" the internet in a country in the sense that most people understand. However, future versions of the Starlink system might be able to communicate with more accessible devices like handheld phones.

These experts cautioned that Iranians could be at risk from a Starlink connection despite Iran's tradition of illegal satellite TV. A word of caution: TV dishes are passive — they don't broadcast — so a Starlink terminal (that both receives and sends data) in a throng of illicit satellite dishes would still be quite findable by Iranian authorities, warned Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.