By Ashkan Khosropour
September 19, 2020
The Starlink initiative, an ambitious satellite internet project funded by billionaire SpaceX owner Elon Musk, intends to provide more than three billion people with internet access by 2027. Those who live mainly in remote areas or, for whatever reason, have difficulty accessing the World Wide Web are among the project’s principal target customers. But what benefit might it have to Iranians who are struggling to get around the government’s heavy-handed firewalls – or even to get online at all? IranWire asked the experts.
What is Starlink and How Will it Work?
Formally announced in 2015, Starlink is the brainchild of the billionaire and space enthusiast Elon Musk. It aims to provide widespread internet coverage by launching thousands of small satellites into low Earth orbit, in combination with transceivers on the ground. As of this month, around 700 of a planned 12,000 satellites have so far been launched into a 500km orbit from Earth by Musk’s rocket manufacturing company, SpaceX.
The project has the potential to revolutionize high-speed internet access across the globe. When it is completed, which is anticipated to be in 2027, an additional three billion people will be able to access the internet with less latency and without interference or filtering.
Starlink internet access will be available to ordinary people via satellite dishes, which are expected to cost between $200 and $300. Installation does not require special technical knowledge, and the dish will automatically adjust its direction based on a set of motors installed underneath it.
More interesting for would-be Iranian users, however, is that the Starlink dishes – or so the company claims – will be fitted with antennas equipped with Phased Array technology, meaning they will be almost entirely jam-proof and filter out surrounding noise. This could make it easier for millions to surf the web without interference.
Uncensored Internet: For the Few, Not the Many?
One chief stumbling block for Iranians hoping to make use of Starlink is its American nationality. Because the company is registered in the United States, it has to comply with US sanctions. Political contingencies will affect the extent to which Iranians can access the service in the coming years.
When Starlink first began inviting people to register for its services online, Iran did not appear as an option for users logging their location on the official website. It was later added to the list in response to a petition by Iranian nationals and internet freedom activists. But there are still other, more practical concerns for would-be Iranian users.
Amir Rashidi, an internet access researcher, told IranWire: “The issue that makes it difficult for Iranians to access the Starlink service is, first and foremost, the cost of the service and equipment – and secondly, how to pay.
“Given the sanctions, only certain segments of Iranian society who are wealthier and have foreign connections will be able to pay for a Starlink subscription. I don’t believe there will be a significant change to access for middle-class and poorer people, who are the most vocal complainants about the [internet] situation in the country.”
Even now, Rashidi points out, material inequality is affecting Iranians’ level of free access to the internet. “Most people use free anti-filtering software with a worse connection and worse security. Those with more money get better services.”
What Will Musk’s Consortium do About Sanctions?
Kaveh Azarhosh, an internet policy researcher, told IranWire that in the face of harsh US-imposed sanctions, many companies are already self-regulating in a manner even stricter than the sanctions themselves require.
“The reason for this,” he says, “is that they are worried about the future of Iran-US relations. They worry that what is not a crime today may one day be a crime. As a result, they are trying to take less risk.”
Citizens’ means of communication in the target country are exempt from US sanctions and Iranians themselves cannot be punished for accessing tools like Starlink. But even if the sanctions were lifted tomorrow, how likely is it that a company like SpaceX would not deny Iranians access to its services for other reasons, such as Iranian domestic law or straightforward business concerns?
“Netflix was one of the American companies that provided services to Iranians,” says Rashidi, “but withdrew from the Iranian market due to problems – including the monopoly of the IRIB. The war between these foreign companies and the Islamic Republic is as much over economic monopoly and content as the issue of internet access. We’ll have to see how Starlink decides to meet this challenge.”