Elon Musk said he will take steps to offer Starlink, his satellite Internet offering to Iranians. He had already made this service available to the Ukrainians after the start of the war against Russia. An increasingly political use of this little thumb of Elon Musk’s empire.
Ukraine, Antarctica and soon Iran? Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, announced on Monday, September 19, that want to apply for an exemption the US trade embargo against Iran to deploy its satellite Internet network, Starlink.
It all started, as it often does with the capricious boss of SpaceX and Tesla, with a tweet, the same day, announcing that Starlink was now available on every continent, including Antarctica.
Elon Musk, “Friend” of Ukraine and Iranians
Connecting the South Pole is good, but for Iranian journalist Erfan Kasraie, who challenges Elon Musk on the microblogging site, offering the service to Iranians would be even better. “Is it technically possible? This could change the game in the long run,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Starlink will seek an exemption from international sanctions in this regard,” replied Elon Musk. Satellite internet “would allow unrestricted access to the network for all Iranians wherever they are in the territory,” says Hamza Mudassir, co-founder of British start-up consultancy Platypodes.eu and professor of business strategy at Cambridge University.
The Internet in Iran is not just tightly controlled by the authorities. It is also difficult to access in rural areas due to the lack of adequate infrastructure. To connect to the network of more than 2,500 satellites placed in orbit by Starlink, all you need is a modem and an antenna. Which, potentially, “change the business”, as Erfan Kasraie points out.
Elon Musk also didn’t set foot on the Persian plate in a trivial moment. The country has been rocked by anti-regime protests for two days in response to the death of a young Iranian woman following her arrest by a deputy squad in Tehran.
This isn’t the first time the SpaceX boss has brandished his Starlink service in crisis situations or tense geopolitical contexts. It did the same in Ukraine, where its satellite internet service was made available to the Ukrainian army from February 2022 to compensate for deficiencies in the traditional internet network, which was targeted by Russian cyberattacks.
This Starlink intrusion into the Russo-Ukrainian War was a huge publicity stunt for Elon Musk’s efforts to promote the reliability of his service. “Starlink played a crucial role in providing the military coordination that allowed the Ukrainian artillery to have an [sur l’armée russe] in the first months of the conflict”, underlines the Smithsonian Magazine, a publication of the famous American institute of multidisciplinary research.
Within months, Elon Musk used Starlink to present himself as Ukraine’s trusted ally against Russian aggression and in support of the Iranians against the authoritarian excesses of the mullahs’ regime.
American Indians in the Tonga Islands
It is, in fact, a kind of red thread for all the multi-billionaire’s communication around Starlink. “He uses it in part as a tool to shape his brand image as a committed entrepreneur,” notes Hamza Mudassir.
Since its commercial debut in late 2020, Starlink has allowed Elon Musk to play the white knight of internet access. The first to benefit from satellite Internet were a small community of American Indians – the Hoh tribe – in Washington state. Headlines quickly multiplied in the American press to praise a service that allowed “an isolated community to be propelled to 21and century”.
Elon Musk, at the same time, made Starlink available to emergency services in Malden, a small town in northwest Washington state that had been almost completely destroyed by fires in the fall of 2020.
The Tesla boss then began to build his reputation as a benefactor of connectivity on the international stage. This is how, in February 2022, it offered free access to its Internet via satellite to one of the islands of the Tonga archipelago, cut off from the world by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano a month later.
These various free service offerings were good for Starlink’s business, points out Smithsonian Magazine. Publicity stunts that are not unrelated to the more than 245% increase in the number of Starlink paying subscribers ($110 per month and $599 for the purchase of equipment to connect) since the beginning of the year, adds the magazine. There are over 400,000 people in the world who have opted for satellite internet made by Elon Musk.
Starlink did indeed serve the economic interests of the entire Elon Musk empire, Hamza Mudassir wants to believe. The multibillionaire “never does a traditional advertising campaign for his products, like Tesla cars, and the notoriety of his brands depends a lot on his public image”, recalls this specialist in business strategies.
This is one of the reasons that lead the entrepreneur to multiply provocations on Twitter. But sometimes he goes too far, and his untimely departures on Twitter may have gotten into trouble with authorities, such as the SEC (Security Exchange Commission, the American stock market police) who accused him of using Twitter to influence the price of stocks. company shares.
A matter of money and image. The “good works” done thanks to Starlink offer a more solid image benefit for Elon Musk. But not all is, however, all rosy in the realm of satellite Internet.
First, the apparent generosity of Elon Musk – who offers free Starlink to Ukrainian and American Indian soldiers – belies a relentless space race that has led NASA to denounce Starlink’s strategy. The American agency points out that SpaceX is flooding space with its satellites. Elon Musk wants to send more than 30,000 into orbit. It would be a kind of privatization of space for the benefit of a single man, denounce some of the astrophysicists.
Elon Musk’s appetite for publicity stunts has also taken on new dimensions with his aid to Ukraine. It is no longer just about helping isolated communities or those affected by natural disasters. “Should a businessman meddle in geopolitical issues? He’s a little God complex,” said Hamza Mudassir.
Elon Musk doesn’t seem to care about the geopolitical consequences of his service offerings. However, on Monday, September 19, Russia accused the United States of “semi-direct intervention in the conflict because of the use of civil space technologies”. [comprendre Starlink] for military purposes”.
“I’m not sure Iran gets a good look at an American company that wants to make it easier for Iranians to access the Internet,” adds Hamza Mudassir. Even in China, scientists linked to the Chinese military suggested in an article published in May 2022 developing capabilities to “destroy Starlink satellites”, as they could be used by the US air force in the event of conflict.
Is Elon Musk aware of fueling the various diplomatic fires? I’m not sure. Shortly after indicating that he would be ready to offer Starlink to Iranians, he responded to a user who suggested he do the same for Cuba with a simple “ok”.