Starlink satellite communications terminals are reportedly being smuggled into Iran in an effort to bypass internet restrictions.
Following the death last month of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini in police custody, protests have spread across the country. The authorities responded by shutting down internet services across the country in an attempt to quell the unrest.
Since then, to great fanfare, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that he was turning on Starlink in Iran, with the US government loosening export controls on communications services accordingly.
The service allows users to access a constellation of thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites via ground-based receivers, offering download speeds of up to 350Mbps and, thanks to the low altitude of the satellites, latency of between 20 and 40ms.
However, it was never going to be straightforward. With a ban in Iran on international banking transactions, Iranians would be unable to purchase the terminals required to access the service.
Now, though, reports are emerging of Starlink terminals being smuggled into the country. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has shared a video on Twitter that he says shows equipment en route to the country.
“They’ve already sent dozens of terminals to Iran and intend to scale up,” he says.
“These efforts are still very nascent, but they have evidence the terminals are working and claim they’re taking extra precautions to lessen the risks to users. Videos have also begun trickling out of Starlink terminals being used inside the country.”
Meanwhile, former NASA director Firouz Naderi says that around 30 Starlink terminals are already active in Iran, having been supplied by a number of groups.
“As a test case this is a good first step and maybe more will follow,” he says.
However, there are big problems, not least the $599 cost of a terminal. Starlink terminals don’t just require access to the satellites – they also need to be within a few hundred miles of a ground station, of which there are none in Iran. They will only work, therefore, around the perimeter of the country where terminals in neighboring nations,such as Turkey, Azerbaijan or Iraq, can be accessed.
Meanwhile, there’s the question of keeping the devices secret from the authorities. While they’re reasonably easy to disguise visually, they by their nature transmit as well as receive – making them simple to detect with the right equipment.
Musk’s efforts to provide Starlink service in Ukraine have been relatively successful, thanks mainly to the enthusiastic support of the Ukranian government. More than $80 million-worth of kit has already been supplied, with another $20 million worth set to reach the country by the end of the year.
SpaceX is now believed to be in discussions with the US government about funding for more.