A “trail of bright lights” in the night sky is making governments around the world nervous.
The network of communications satellites, known as Starlink, proved to be a lifeline for Ukraine after Russia invaded the country in February 2022. Without space-beamed internet, “we would have been losing the war already,” a Ukrainian platoon commander told the Wall Street Journal.
But Starlink, operated by the company SpaceX, has also courted controversy. In September 2022, Ukraine’s request to activate coverage near Crimea was denied, raising questions about the role of tech companies in combat zones. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, waded into another minefield last week when he offered to “support connectivity” to aid organizations in Gaza.
Musk insists the satellite internet service is a benign “civilian system.” “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can. . . do good peaceful things, not drone strikes,” he told the author of a recently published biography.
When SpaceX began assembling the network in 2015, the goal was to operate a system that would deliver high-speed internet to parts of the world that lacked physical infrastructure, such as fiber optic cables. In a 2016 speech, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said: “Let’s build little communications satellites and provide global broadband capability for reasonable prices.”
Island nations in the Asia-Pacific are a prime market for satellite internet, and Starlink has expanded its presence in the region. The service is available in Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. In a statement, the president of KDDI, Starlink’s local partner in Japan, noted that the service was well-suited for a country with “16,000 mountains and 6,000 islands.”
Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia are also ideally situated for satellite internet. Starlink’s network is clustered at the equator, delivering a stronger signal to subscribers at lower latitudes. Further, the system’s low-earth orbit ensures “low latency,” meaning data transmission is faster than with traditional geostationary satellites.
The Indonesian government is a potential customer. Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin wants to bring satellite internet to community healthcare centers in far-flung regions like Papua. Over 20 percent of the country’s rural health clinics lack internet access. “This is our effort to ensure equitable health services in the country,” explained Sadikin.
But Starlink faces regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles in Indonesia, especially in the direct-to-consumer market. “SpaceX’s presence has the potential to harm local businesses,” warned a Jakarta Post opinion piece, which suggested that the California-based company made a state-owned telecommunications conglomerate “uneasy” by directly lobbying the Ministry of Communications and Informatics.
The communications minister assured local internet providers that SpaceX would not receive preferential treatment and would be subject to local licensing requirements. SpaceX reportedly rejected the ministry’s conditions. The company’s executives often negotiate directly with heads of government on dismantling barriers to market entry.
Malaysia recently exempted SpaceX from protectionist laws restricting foreign ownership of domestic internet companies. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim promised Musk a level playing field free of “nitty gritty bureaucratic encumbrances.”
SpaceX can be a tough negotiator partly because the company has yet to generate a consistent revenue stream. In a 2019 interview, Shotwell said, “I’m pretty sure we can launch satellites into orbit,” but added that the long-term challenge was financial viability. SpaceX posted a loss in 2022 but appears to have bounced back. Last week, Musk announced that the company had “achieved breakeven cash flow” and had reached another milestone: “Starlink is also now a majority of all active satellites.”
Early this year, a small archipelago within Taiwan’s territorial waters suffered an internet outage that lasted nearly two months, after Chinese vessels damaged two undersea internet cables near the Matsu Islands. Residents relied on microwave radio transmission during the internet blackout.
The incident highlighted Taiwan’s acute vulnerability to cable disruption.
But Musk’s close business ties with China may have forced the ROC (Republic of China) government to consider options other than Starlink. Taiwan contracted with British provider OneWeb in June for backup satellite internet service.