Some people have speculated Elon Musk sees himself as a real-life Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, and if so the Ukraine crisis may have offered him a chance to live out his dreams – he is, he says, providing satellite internet access to the country. In light of Musk's record for both astonishing successes and embarrassing failures, it's too soon to tell which category this will fall into, but a lot of lives could hang on the outcome.
When knowledge is power, access to the Internet is a crucial part of any struggle. The people of Ukraine need it to rally soldiers and volunteers resisting invasion, to tell civilians when and where to flee, and to get word out to the rest of the world of their efforts.
This is hardly likely to have escaped Vladamir Putin's notice, so transmission towers and other infrastructure are likely targets. Ukraine’s vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov had an idea and took advantage of the fact the system was still somewhat operational to seek assistance from the one man who might be able to provide it.
Ten hours later he had his answer.
Even Musk's critics are giving him points for this one, with comments along the lines of “don't make me like the guy.”
However, the exchange almost coincided with the news that Virgin Hyperloop, whose tunnels are built by Musk's Boring Company and was inspired by his idea, is laying off half its staff. Alongside Tesla and SpaceX's immense successes, there have been plenty of big dreams that didn't go so well.
Despite losing some satellites in a recent solar storm, Starlink is now approaching 2,000 satellites in orbit transmitting and receiving data. Redirecting them to prioritize Ukraine when they're over the right part of the planet probably wasn't the hard part. Each satellite is reportedly capable of serving 2,080 users – a substantial help, but far from adequate for a nation of 43 million.
More importantly, to connect to Starlink you need a ground-based terminal. Ukraine presumably has a few – although official numbers don't seem to be available – but it's not a global hotspot. Musk may have promised “more terminals” but delivering them to a war zone and getting them operational may prove a challenge.
Moreover, while Starlink's performance under optimum conditions is astonishing, users have reported considerable interference from trees or neighboring buildings. With Starlink satellites passing over different parts of the sky, maintaining line-of-sight requires being the highest thing around. Even then, wind and rain can affect performance severely. Uploading more of the videos that have helped reinforce morale and make the world aware of likely future war crimes may not run smoothly, even if the electricity supply stays on to allow it.
Internet access isn't just a problem for Ukrainians. There are numerous reports of Russian soldiers getting lost, hindered by locals messing with street signs. Presumably, that wouldn't be happening if they could access Google Maps, so the invading army might try to capture, rather than destroy, terminals.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made fools of a lot of commentators, starting with those who were supremely confident it would never happen. Those who expected Russian forces to have captured Kyiv within a week look like joining them. Plenty of people online are quite certain Starlink will solve Ukraine's Internet problems, while others seem to think it will be a total bust. Whether either group knows what they are talking about, or if the truth lies in between, could prove one of the determining factors in the war.