SpaceX confirmed that the company’s Starlink services are now active in Ukraine, while the attacks by Russian invading forces continue. This was after the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister had reached out to SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk on Twitter to request their services. The very next day following the request, Starlink was active in Ukraine. While these efforts are impressive, we’ll discuss whether solutions like Starlink are the silver bullet for the digital divide problem, or whether they’re best suited for specific use cases.
Starlink and its Perks
Starlink is the satellite internet department of SpaceX that has consistently deployed over 2,000 satellites into orbit over the last few years. Starlink’s goal is to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband internet to areas of the globe that normally would be poorly connected. Providing reliable internet services to rural areas, and offering competitively priced services to urban areas are their mission statements.
Starlink has previously been used to provide broadband internet services to disaster zones. An underwater volcano erupted in Tonga in January 2022, and Starlink enabled rural villages to have an internet connection to aid their recovery. Starlink can work very well in these situations where it isn’t cost-effective to connect every premise, and internet service is needed quickly.
However, there are some drawbacks to Starlink’s services that may prevent it from becoming sustainable for the long term. First of all, the cost to manufacture and install the satellites, along with maintenance would make Starlink too expensive for most rural areas to afford. There are also concerns about the number of satellites in orbit, and how much space there is for new satellites if all rural areas around the world were to be covered.
Apart from the typical drawbacks to Starlink, the situation in Ukraine also brings about a unique danger specific to war zones. In particular, users’ uplink transmissions from Earth to satellites could become easy targets for airstrikes from Russia. With Russia attempting to disable internet services around Ukraine, evidence of satellite transmissions could draw airstrikes and possibly increase the number of casualties.
Connectivity Solutions for the Future
Despite these drawbacks, satellite internet for those in conflict areas such as Ukraine has been tremendously helpful. Huge disruptions were experienced due to damage the major internet backbone in Ukraine took from fighting in Kyiv and Vasylkiv. It is thought that the benefits may outweigh the drawbacks to Starlink, as it will provide Ukrainians access to unfiltered information, instead of using communication methods that are controlled by Russia. Starlink could play a vital part in keeping Ukrainians connected, as more disruptions are being tracked across the country, while the Russian troops continue to invade.
While Starlink is providing vital services for those in Ukraine and will continue to do so while they need it, it may not be a viable standalone long-term solution. As mentioned earlier, overall costs to deploy Starlink and maintain the service are too high, not to mention the logistics of having thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of satellites orbiting Earth to provide broadband internet to rural areas.
So, what are some solutions to long-term internet service, so that rural areas and otherwise don’t have to be physically connected to the main network?
Decentralized & Technology Agnostic
The overarching mission of Airwaive is to decentralize the last-mile internet, regardless of how it’s done. An example is neighborhood hotspots that are anchored to any internet source while providing internet in rural areas and underserved urban areas that are not as profitable for traditional ISPs. It utilizes a decentralized network of internet backhauls that can use a variety of internet endpoints. These include fiber, fixed wireless, satellite, and other internet sources to operate. In other words, Airwaive is technology agnostic and the best solution often depends on the particular use case and environment. Coming back to Starlink’s satellite solution, this may very well be a viable solution for rural areas. And to increase its cost effectiveness, a combination of satellite internet endpoints and local repeaters can be leveraged to establish a wide area mesh network.
This new type of internet brings with it a whole host of advantages over centralized internet that is based on a single line to the user for the “last mile Internet”. There are notable cost advantages to be had when there is competition, with two or more Internet providers. Internet speeds, service levels, and prices are subject to market forces with decentralization and it is expected that the cost of broadband internet will decrease significantly.
Secondly, as this new network is decentralized, there are multiple options to connect to the core Internet. This gives users control over the route their traffic takes, bypassing controlled connection points. For example, a local mesh network connected to satellite backhaul. The advantages that a decentralized network has become magnified when applied to the current situation in Ukraine. Starlink is providing emergency, temporary broadband services so that Ukrainians do not have to use Russian-filtered communications.
Finally, edge computing and storage takes a significant leap with decentralized neighborhood hotspots. The members of the community could own the infrastructure that is used for computing and storage. It would also be an opportunity for community members to make some extra money, as hosting wireless access points can be a great way to earn passive income.
The concept of decentralized internet is still one that is evolving, even though it has gained a lot of momentum in recent times. Airwaive has the goal of providing internet access for more people, in more places, at higher speeds, and for a reduced price. In years to come, decentralized internet could be key in bridging the digital divide.