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May 12, 2022

Why Starlink could inspire further LEO investment

Since the beginning of the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine, Starlink has consistently proven its worth as a critical communications medium. The service has been proven resilient, both in its design and operations. The service requires no ground-based infrastructure aside from a user terminal, allowing users to set up internet access quickly. It circumvents terrestrial infrastructure, which has not only been damaged by the ongoing warfare, but has also crumbled under targeted Russian cyber and physical attacks and sabotage. This part of its performance was expected.

However, when Russian forces started jamming Starlink signals, the service proved to be operationally resilient. US Department of Defense (DoD) officials recently confirmed that Starlink has mitigated Russian jamming attempts extremely quickly by “changing a couple of lines of code” and pushing new codes through the system. Although it is unclear how exactly the jamming was effected and mitigated, Starlink’s ability to quickly alter the code its system is running and then push those updates to all orbital and ground assets shows a high level of software engineering prowess and excellent system design by allowing such changes on the fly and practically in real time.

Resilience

Starlink’s resilience to jamming, and its almost complete independence from terrestrial resources, led to speculation of how vulnerable the system would be to physical attack on its satellites. Although an attack on a LEO satellite constellation is possible – Russia and China, for example, have anti-satellite weapons – such an attack would be costly, ineffective, and cause significant collateral damage.

  • Costly: With a Starlink satellite’s cost estimated to be around $250,000, shooting one satellite down would likely cost more than replacing it in orbit. Also, since the attack would need to take out hundreds of satellites to be effective, the cost to do so (both in terms of finances and depletion of anti-satellite weapons) could be prohibitive.
  • Ineffective: With thousands of satellites in orbit, any attacker would need to shoot down a significant number of satellites to degrade the service; they would still likely fail to take the service down, as satellites can be repositioned to re-establish target area coverage and can provide coverage even without overflying a contested area.
  • Damaging (and Dangerous): The collateral damage of an attack on a LEO constellation would be significant in creating orbital debris. Moving warfare into the orbit could cause retaliation in kind against the attacker.

Starlink performance could pave the way for broader uses

From a broader perspective, Starlink’s stellar performance in Ukraine paves the way for further uses for satellite internet – some of them commercial, but also with a deeper societal repercussion. From a commercial standpoint, Starlink’s resilience and (as of late) nomadic performance are a proving ground for its use, either as a backup connectivity (e.g., in enterprises having geographically dispersed operations across areas with differing levels of terrestrial service) or as a perfect way of handling use cases needing nomadic and consistent connectivity (e.g., cruise ships, sports teams, or private users in mobile homes).

The government-sponsored use cases may even be more important: outside of the military uses that certainly inspired the US DoD to help fund the Ukrainian Starlink deployment, LEO constellations can be used as a critical communications medium in disaster-stricken areas, or even as a way of providing uncensored access to the internet for people living under oppressive regimes. This final use case – akin to democratic countries providing radio programming to people living behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the second half of the 20th century – is not practical at present, due to the size and cost of today’s terminals needed to access the service. In the future, though, with miniaturization and commercialization of the technology, it could become a significant way of bringing the ‘splinternet’ back together.