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Starlink still running despite closure caution

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Elonstarlink
Elonstarlink

Elon Musk’s Starlink service is still operating in multiple unauthorised regions, defying warnings issued by the company last month that its satellite internet will be shut down by 1 May in areas where it doesn’t have a licence to operate.

SpaceX’s Starlink sent e-mails to customers in several African countries, including South Africa, last month warning that it would restrict roaming where the service wasn’t allowed.

Despite the vow to cut access, Adam Mohamed, a resident of El-Fasher in conflict-hit Sudan was able to answer questions in an interview conducted on Wednesday. “I’m currently talking to you through the Starlink connection, it’s the only way of connecting between people, especially those who fled the war,” he said.

Starlink’s notices came after a March investigation by Bloomberg News, which first revealed the extent to which Musk’s satellites are being used in countries around the world where it is illegal to operate, including in territories ruled by repressive regimes. The ease of smuggling the kits and the sheer availability of Starlink on the black market suggested its misuse was a systemic global problem and raised questions about the company’s control of a system with expansive national security dimensions.

Following the investigation, as well as a similar report weeks later in the Wall Street Journal, Starlink sent e-mails to accountholders warning “if you are operating your Starlink kit in an area other than areas designated as — available — on the Starlink availability map, we would like to remind you that this is in violation of the Starlink terms and starting 30 April 2024, you will be unable to connect to the internet,” according to communications seen by Bloomberg and first reported by the Journal.

Bloomberg has viewed e-mails sent to users in South Africa and Botswana, following the earlier reports that people in Sudan were to be among those affected.

Yet an online poll of nearly 100 Starlink customers in South Africa showed that 73% could still access the service after the cut-off date. Some Starlink users Bloomberg spoke to in Sudan said their service had been cut off, while others reported being able to access the internet without interruption.

“Starlink can deploy virtual barriers to prevent unauthorised users from connecting to its network in restricted areas,” according to Manuel Ntumba, an Africa geospatial, governance and risk expert based in New York. Still, he said, “successfully implementing these measures requires collaboration with regulatory bodies”.

SpaceX, the parent company of Starlink, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Nor did the South African telecommunications regulator or a spokesman for the Sudanese military.

In its e-mails to users, the company said its roaming services are only intended for “temporary travel and transit”, and not for permanent use in an unlicensed location. It advised those who accessed the terminals in a different jurisdiction for more than two months to “change your account country or return to the country in which your service was ordered”, at risk of having their service restricted.

Starlink

Starlink delivers broadband internet beamed down from a network of roughly 5 500 satellites that SpaceX started launching in 2019. With more than 2.6 million customers already, Starlink has the potential to become a major moneymaker for SpaceX, a company that began as Musk’s way to fulfil his ambition of exploring Mars and has now become the most important private-sector contractor to the US government’s space programme and a dominant force in national security.

Musk, until recently the world’s richest person, has said there will be a cap to how much money SpaceX’s satellite launch services business will make, while Starlink could eventually reach revenue of US$30-billion/year.

But given the security concerns around a private American company controlling internet service, SpaceX first needs to sign agreements with governments in each territory.

The company, which recently struck a deal to operate in Israel, said it plans to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites to connect places that are too remote for ground-based broadband, or that have been cut off by natural disasters or conflict.

Humanitarian organisations in Sudan, for example, have warned restricting the service will undermine their work across the country, which has been embroiled in civil war since April 2023.

“We have contacted Starlink in order to consider the situation in Sudan and not cut services. The majority of the emergency rooms, the public kitchens and thousands of people are using Starlink internet to survive,” Hadreen, a local charity organisation called said in a statement.

Residents in Al-Jazeera state said that local Starlink shops, which are mainly operated by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been suspended in some areas since last week.

The majority of local Starlink shops have been shut down, Musab Mahmoud from Al-Hasahesa locality in western Al-Jazeera state said. But others, including Khalid Hassan from Khartoum, said he is still using Starlink. “I have received a transfer from my brother who is based in Uganda just today. RSF soldiers are still running Starlink shops,” he said

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