In Iran, Elon Musk’s satellite network won’t “fundamentally change the game”

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi promises not to have ” no mercy against those who show their hostility to the Islamic Republic at demonstrations. Meanwhile, Elon Musk guarantees 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 protests that shook the country.

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

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

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

Today, censorship is installed at several internet crossing points within the country. At the Will, censorship mechanisms are done by keywords and are usually installed at ISPs or Iranian Internet exit points. And the Iranian internet is designed so that these exit points are controllable, limited and well identified. Starlink completely disengages itself from the Iranian internet infrastructure, as the only thing that would be on Iranian soil would be the antenna and the receiving base station.

Does this completely bypass censorship and why? 🇧🇷

Yes and no. For the lucky beneficiaries of that connection, this will eventually allow them to bypass censorship as they will have direct access to the internet via Starlink. But as they say, a swallow does not make spring. One hundred Internet connections will not change the situation, especially since the Internet in Iran is not completely sealed. We manage to get regular internal video and insider information, even if it’s fragmented and difficult to obtain. However, the capacity we are talking about today on Starlink is less than 0.1% of the capacity VPNs in Iran have today. It might change things for a lot of activists, but it won’t fundamentally change things.

There are several elements to Starlink that must be taken into account. First, the cost. The device will cost you around 500 euros with the purchase of the connection system, and you have a subscription of around a hundred euros a month to pay. At the current euro rate in Iran, 100 euros is 80% of the average salary for 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, around 2009, and there was a great movement of the security forces to search and find satellite antennas of internet and eradicate them. Today, someone installing 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 the lifting, two months ago, of the ban imposed by the US Treasury Department on having Iranian internet traffic on American networks. Because the Iranian Internet was between the two spokes of scissors: on the one hand, the will of the government and, on the other, the will of the United States to impose sanctions. Starlink now comes to reduce the previous impact a little, but the damage has already been done.

For SpaceX, which markets Starlink, it’s taking risks or announcing 🇧🇷

This is a very big ad. This allows them to present themselves as a support for democracy. And this also goes exactly in the direction of the very strong deployment, which was done at the Starlink level in Ukraine. Elon Musk prided himself on being a very important supporter 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 cannot forget that very 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.

► Also to listen: Starlink Financing: “There are talks with big money and Elon Musk teasing”

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