Musk wants to save the Ukrainian Internet—but antennas can be tracked and targeted

This is what the Starlink satellite dish looks like. It is necessary to connect to the Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. Illustration: Steve Jurvetson

When Danish media have to send live video back home from Ukraine, it takes place mainly over the good old copper network, also known as the telephone line. The usual satellite connections over Ukraine are currently very unstable.

Since the invasion began on February 24, American communications company Viasat has had problems establishing stable network connections to its KA-SAT satellite, which ensures broadband coverage over Europe, including Ukraine.

According to Viasat, the outage is not due to faults on the satellite itself but due to massive DDoS attacks.

Similarly, insecure connections are experienced on the L-band, which is used for TV broadcasts, among other things, as well as for military operations and navigation systems such as Galileo and GPS.

This has prompted Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who is also the Minister of Digital Transformation, to send an emergency call to tech companies around the world.

Specifically, he recently requested access and assistance to connect to the new Starlink satellite network operated by SpaceX.

Illustration: Twitter

The Starlink satellites are in low Earth orbit and can—because they are relatively close to the Earth—provide broadband connections of up to 100 Mbit/s, which is significantly better than most other available commercial satellite services serving Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded quickly to the call, writing: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine.”

So far so good. However, there are no consumer electronics in the form of mobile phones or computers that can just be connected to the Starlink satellites. Special hardware in the form of a dish is required to receive the satellite signals.

Within a day, a truck with a shipment of satellite dishes arrived and the first internet connections are now available in Ukraine.

However, there are two things that stand out. The need for special ground stations makes it difficult to scale up the Starlink connections so that they can provide broadband internet access for many Ukrainians. It is unclear how many satellite dishes have been sent to Ukraine and how the authorities will use them.

At the same time, the ground stations consume a lot of power, so if the electricity grid is shut down, the connection to Starlink disappears.

Therefore, Starlink will not immediately be particularly helpful in the port city of Mariupol, which has recently been without power. Elon Musk proposes to solve this problem by setting up solar panels and batteries as emergency power supply. However, it is unclear how that will be implemented, and so far, there are no reports of Starlink satellite dishes being installed outside the electricity grid.

Can be used to locate attack targets

The second challenge is related to security. Radio waves from, for example, Starlink can be used to determine locations on land. This is possible because the Starlink satellite dish emits radio signals at all angles.

By triangulating the signal, it is possible to determine its position. It is not straightforward, but Russia is known to be among the world’s most skilled countries at jamming, spoofing, and manipulating radio signals.

John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, was among the first to warn that Starlink satellite dishes could pose a security risk in Ukraine. In a longer thread on Twitter, he explains how uplink transmissions from the ground can be intercepted, even if the signal is encrypted.

He points out that Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed in a missile strike back in 1996, after his satphone revealed his position.

On Thursday, Elon Musk also acknowledged that using Starlink in Ukraine comes at a cost.

“Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution,” Elon Musk wrote on Twitter. Subsequently, he suggested camouflaging the Starlink satellite dish so that it cannot be seen from the air, just as he recommended using the Starlink network only when absolutely necessary.

Illustration: Twitter

Communications infrastructure is preserved

Despite local power outages and an attack on the main TV tower in Kyiv, so far there are only minor outages in mobile networks and broadband connections in Ukraine.

The attack on the TV tower resulted in a couple of hours of downtime on eight TV channels, but they were quickly brought back up, presumably by turning up the transmission power on other masts.

Precisely because of the unstable connections, international media are currently broadcasting TV over the copper network, i.e. the good old-fashioned telephone lines, and not over satellite network.

Should the connection from Ukraine be disconnected, the BBC has on March 3 reopened short-wave transmissions that can be received in Ukraine and Russia on 15735 kHz in the evening and at night. This led to Russian authorities blocking access to the BBC’s websites in Russia, The Guardian writes.

The war is also taking place over radio waves

While both Ukraine and Russia are constantly being bombarded by cyber attacks on infrastructure, a similar radio war is taking place, in which radio amateurs are trying to jam military radio frequencies, just as there are unconfirmed rumours that Russian satellites are under attack.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, dismisses these claims and emphasizes:

“Offlining the satellites of any country is actually a casus belli, a cause for war,” Dmitry Rogozin told Interfax.

That announcement comes in the wake of Roscosmos’s cancellation of the launch of a number of British OneWeb broadband satellites. The OneWeb satellites were to be launched on Friday 4 March from Kazakhstan. The Russians can block the launch as it has to happen with the help of Russian Soyuz rockets. Russia has also put a stop on future launches from French Guiana.

Thus, satellites have already played a significant role in the first week of the Russian invasion. However, there are also a number of limitations. Until a few days ago, the whole world was able to follow the large Russian convoy that has been slowly moving towards the Ukrainian capital.

Normally, images in such high resolution from space are reserved for special military spy satellites, but new commercial satellite services, such as the one provided by Maxar Technologies, have been continuously released. But a thick cloud cover over Ukraine in recent days means that Maxar Technologies could not provide images as they do not have radars.