In Iran, Elon Musk’s satellite network will not “fundamentally change the game”

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi promises not to have ” no mercy towards those who display their hostility towards the Islamic Republic in the demonstrations. Meanwhile, Elon Musk assures on Twitter that there will be ” soon 100 active Starlinks in Iran “, while the authorities have restricted access to the internet since the beginning of the wave of protest that has shaken the country.

Kavé Salamatian is a computer science professor at the University of Savoie.

RFI : How does Starlink work and how does the constellation help circumvent censorship?

Kave Salamatian: Starlink is based on low-orbit satellites, that is, satellites that rotate in the sky at a distance of approximately 250 km from Earth. The interest of this technology is that it allows connectivity to the Internet with a fairly limited terrestrial infrastructure, of the order of an antenna and a receiver. So it can make it more difficult to control the internet, but it’s also done to provide connectivity in some white areas where internet is not available.

Today, censorship is installed at a number of internet crossing points inside the country. In Iran, the censorship mechanisms are done by keywords and they are generally installed at Internet access providers or exit points of the Iranian Internet. And the Iranian internet has been designed so that these exit points are controllable, limited and well identified. Starlink completely frees itself from the Iranian internet infrastructure, since the only thing that would be on Iranian soil would be the antenna and the reception base station.

Does it completely bypass censorship, and why? ?

Yes and no. For the lucky beneficiaries of this connection, this will eventually allow them to circumvent censorship, since they will have direct access to the Internet via 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 piecemeal and difficult to obtain. However, the capacity we are talking about today on Starlink is less than 0.1% of the capacity that VPNs in Iran have today. It may change things for a number of activists, but it won’t fundamentally change things.

There are several elements in Starlink that must be taken into account. First, the cost. The device will cost around 500 euros when you buy the connection system, and you have a subscription of around a 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 that must be taken into account is that the Internet arrived in Iran through satellites and around the green revolt, that is to say around 2009, and there was a huge movement of security forces to seek and find internet satellite antennas and eradicate them. Today, someone who would install a Starlink antenna would find themselves, if discovered, in an extremely complex security situation.

That said, what has allowed the Iranian Internet to breathe a little today is not patches like Starlink and others, but it was the lifting, two months ago, of the ban imposed by the US Treasury Department to have Iranian internet traffic on US networks. Because the Iranian Internet was between the two beams of a scissor: on the one hand, the will of the government, and on the other, the will of the United States to put in place sanctions. Starlink now comes to reduce the previous impact a bit, but the damage has been done.

For SpaceX, which markets Starlink, is it risk taking or advertising ?

This is a very big advertisement. This allows them to show themselves as a support for democracy. And that also goes exactly in the direction of the rather strong deployment, which was made at the level of Starlink in Ukraine. Elon Musk prided himself on being a very important support for Ukraine in terms of internet connectivity. The dimensions of the number of stations we have in Ukraine have nothing to do with the dimensions 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 must not forget that quite quickly, Elon Musk said that it was not up to the SpaceX company to bear the cost. We are in an approach where at the same time, we want to advertise, but without spending too much.

► To listen also: Starlink funding: ‘There are big money negotiations and Elon Musk provocation’

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In Iran, Elon Musk’s satellite network will not “fundamentally change the game”


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