Powered by
Sponsored by

How Ukraine is keeping its internet up and running, and what India can learn from it

Ukraine’s internet is running on satellites that function in low earth orbit

starlink-musk-internet (File) Representational image

Despite the continued Russian attack on Ukraine, Elon Musk-owned SpaceX's Starlink internet is active in Ukraine. While a lot of physical infrastructure has been destroyed in the country, Starlink has kept Ukrainian cities connected, along with other online emergency services. Starlink has launched nearly 2,000 satellites that function in low earth orbit. At Ukraine's request, Musk’s company began working in the country at lightning speed. Experts say that space based internet service is tougher to get disrupted compared to wired or cell tower based systems, which are common in all countries, including India.

“Satellite broadband is immune to any disturbance to permanent terrestrial telecommunication infrastructure, making it ideal for communicating during situations of natural disasters or wars. Also, 90 per cent of earth surface (including water) is not covered by terrestrial networks, making space the only way to connect. However, for long term sustainability during war scenarios, cyber security of satellite networks should be strengthened,” remarked Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder and CEO, Skyroot Aerospace.

It has been reported that Musk shipped special equipment to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, which enabled the internet connection beamed from space. So far, SpaceX's internet service is operational. The company, rather than giving the internet facility to the entire population, is focused on giving it to the government and its officials.

“Not many details are made public about how many Starlink terminals are in place in Ukraine to help the common man. But it is obvious that political and defence officials are getting the communication facility created on an ad hoc basis. Musk has announced that he is updating the software to reduce peak power consumption, so Starlink can be powered even by a car cigarette lighter. Mobile roaming is enabled, so a phased array antenna can maintain a signal while in a moving vehicle. According to John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, there is no guarantee that in Ukraine, transmission between Starlink user terminals and satellites in low earth orbit will be spared from airstrikes. He has also warned that Russia has a history of targeting people based on satellite communications,” explained Girish Linganna, an aviation and space expert and director at ADD Engineering Components India Limited.

Interestingly, the virtual war on the internet in Ukraine has been intensifying over the last few weeks. Ukraine  minister Mykhailo Fedorov has been working creatively despite the crisis, turning technology and social media into modern weapons of war. He tweeted during the first week of the war that his country was developing an IT army, and invited people digital skills to join him to fight on the cyber front.

“Even Musk is not saying that his company’s service is foolproof. He has advised Starlink users to take precautions, such as turning on the antenna only when required. It has been reported that the US government is considering enacting a law that would pave the way for providing cellular and internet connectivity in war zones,” said Linganna.

Ukraine had been using Russian Satellites prior to the war. These were destroyed by Russians and Ukraine had lost much of connectivity, but thanks to Musk and SpaceX, which has jumped in and put up a swarm of satellites to restore connectivity.  

“It can be a huge learning for not only India but for the rest of the world that depend on other countries' satellites for all their in house needs. Apart from this, the next major threat are the anti satellites being tested by various countries. This is creating a thought if the world was heading towards a space war. Let us have a space policy written and implemented by all the countries. Every country needs to abide by the same. Space has no borders, space programmes will work collaboratively and space will be used only for constructive purposes and never for destruction. India has its own Space programs and a fleet of Satellites and now with Bharti telecom putting up the  ‘One Web' I think we can have our own safe and secure communication services and connectivity to the world without any dependence,” Srimathy Kesan, founder and CEO, Space Kidz India told THE WEEK.

Recently, Jio Platforms Limited (JPL), a digital arm of Reliance Industry Limited (RIL), formed a joint venture (JV) with Luxembourg-based SES to provide affordable broadband services in India, leveraging satellite technology. The JV will use multi-orbit space networks that are a combination of geostationary orbit (GEO) and medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellations. This joint venture is expected to give a tremendous boost to the adoption of satellite broadband technology in India that has been centered around buying capacity on geostationary satellites. Tata Sky, for instance, uses Insat 4A and G-Sat 10 to stream content to TVs across India.

The potential of this technology is immense as every unconnected part of the world, every small town and village can access high speed internet, which will spark a revolution in accessibility.  Low earth orbit constellations have the ability to provide coverage of nearly every spot of the earth that the satellites are passing over, but only for the duration of the pass. On the other hand, satellites in geostationary orbits provide continuous coverage from a fixed spot above a certain location. By combining these two advantages, companies can enable uninterrupted network coverage of the entire planet at all times.