In Iran, Elon Musk’s satellite network will not “fundamentally change the game”
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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi promised that there would be no ” ruthless to those who show their hatred for the Islamic Republic in demonstrations. Meanwhile, Elon Musk assured on Twitter that there will be ” soon 100 active Starlinks in Iran “, as authorities have restricted access to the internet since the start of the wave of protests that shook the country.
Kavé Salamatian is a professor of computer science at the University of Savoie.
RFI : How does Starlink work and how does the constellation help avoid censorship?
Kave Salamatian: Starlink is based on low-orbit satellites, that is, satellites orbiting the sky at a distance of about 250 km from Earth. The interest of this technology is that it allows Internet connectivity with a relatively limited terrestrial infrastructure, in the order of an antenna and a receiver. So it can be more difficult to control the internet, but it is also done to provide connection in some white areas where the internet is not available.
Today, censorship is installed at some internet crossing points within the country. In Iran, censorship mechanisms are made by keywords and they are usually installed in Internet access providers or exit points of the Iranian Internet. And the Iranian internet is designed so that these exit points are controlled, limited and well identified. Starlink has completely freed itself from Iran’s internet infrastructure, as the only thing visible on Iranian soil is the antenna and the reception base station.
Does it completely bypass censorship, and why? ?
Yes and no. For the lucky beneficiaries of this connection, it will eventually allow them to circumvent censorship, as they will have direct access to the Internet through Starlink. But as they say, a swallow does not make spring. A hundred Internet connections will not change the situation, especially since the Internet in Iran is not completely sealed. We manage to have inside videos and inside information on a regular basis, even if they are sporadic and hard to come by. However, the capacity we are talking about today with Starlink is less than 0.1% of the capacity that VPNs have in Iran today. It might change things for some activists, but it won’t change things.
There are several elements to Starlink to consider. First, the cost. The device costs about 500 euros when you buy the connection system, and you have a subscription of about one hundred euros per month to pay. At the current rate of the euro in Iran, 100 euros is 80% of the average salary of a computer engineer. Another element to consider is that the Internet came to Iran through satellites and around the green uprising, that is in 2009, and there was a large movement of the security forces to search and find those internet satellite antenna and destroy them. Now, someone installing a Starlink antenna would find themselves, if discovered, in a very complicated security situation.
That said, what allows the Iranian Internet to breathe a little now is not patches like Starlink and others, but it is the lifting, two months ago, of the ban imposed by the US Treasury Department that have Iranian internet traffic on US networks. Because the Iranian Internet is between two rays of a scissors: on the one hand, the will of the government, and on the other hand, the will of the United States to impose sanctions. Starlink had now arrived to lessen the previous effect a bit, but the damage was already done.
For SpaceX, which sells Starlink, is it risk-taking or advertising ?
This is a huge advertisement. This allows them to present themselves as a support for democracy. And that also goes exactly in the direction of relatively strong deployment, which is done at the level of Starlink in Ukraine. Elon Musk prides himself on being a very important support for Ukraine in terms of internet connectivity. The measurements of the number of stations we have in Ukraine have nothing to do with the measurements of the number of stations we have in Iran. In Ukraine, we are talking about several thousand, even tens of thousands of stations. But we should not forget that quite quickly, Elon Musk said that the cost does not depend on the SpaceX company. We are in a strategy where at the same time, we want to advertise, but not spend too much.
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