Cybersecurity & Tech

The Geopolitical Ramifications of Starlink Internet Service?

Herb Lin
Tuesday, June 30, 2020, 8:01 AM
A satellite image shows a space view of nighttime city lights in the Iberian Peninsula. (Source: NASA)

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Starlink is a space-based internet service provider that seeks to provide high-speed (40 mbps upload, 100 mbps download ), near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021—bringing this service to locations where access previously has been unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable. Starlink has publicized the space-based segment of its platform for some time, which will involve thousands of low-earth orbit satellites (about 550 km altitude), but what one needed on the ground to access Starlink was not entirely clear. Until now.

A June 23 Business Insider article showed photographs of the hardware—called a user terminal—needed to connect terrestrial users to Starlink satellites overhead. Notably, the dish antenna is approximately the size of a medium pizza, though from the photographs themselves, it is not entirely clear how large or heavy the entire assembly will be.

The history of electronic components suggests that, over time, they shrink in size and weight—so it is not unreasonable to expect user terminals to be significantly smaller in the future. Costs are expected to drop as well—the target price for the first-generation user terminals is expected to be a few hundred dollars.

When the cost and size drop, and Starlink is fully deployed, the geopolitical implications are potentially quite profound. Consider in particular what will happen to the attempts of authoritarian governments to selectively block internet access for their citizens. Rather than relying on indigenous internet service providers that are subject to domestic law, citizens of these nations will now be able to access the internet through Starlink—which is not under the control of these governments—provided they have appropriate user terminals. Thus, every citizen with a user terminal and a computer becomes an access point for the broader internet to penetrate the nation’s closed information borders.

Authoritarian governments that are still seeking to exercise internet control will need to focus their efforts on preventing these terminals from falling into the hands of their citizens, confiscating terminals that citizens do obtain (or even arresting those citizens) or jamming the signals used to carry Starlink traffic. Another approach would be to compromise the internet services that Starlink offers. For example, authoritarian governments could incentivize Starlink to turn off service when its satellites were overflying their countries. Incentives could include anything from paying Starlink to turn off satellites at the appropriate times to coercing Starlink management in some way to comply with their demands.

We may be on the verge of entering a new world of telecommunications whose geopolitical implications are not yet understood. Stay tuned—it will be an interesting ride.

Dr. Herb Lin is senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Hank J. Holland Fellow in Cyber Policy and Security at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University. His research interests relate broadly to policy-related dimensions of cybersecurity and cyberspace, and he is particularly interested in and knowledgeable about the use of offensive operations in cyberspace, especially as instruments of national policy. In addition to his positions at Stanford University, he is Chief Scientist, Emeritus for the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies, where he served from 1990 through 2014 as study director of major projects on public policy and information technology, and Adjunct Senior Research Scholar and Senior Fellow in Cybersecurity (not in residence) at the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies in the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Prior to his NRC service, he was a professional staff member and staff scientist for the House Armed Services Committee (1986-1990), where his portfolio included defense policy and arms control issues. He received his doctorate in physics from MIT.

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