Ukraine, Iran, Cuba: How Elon Musk advertises with the Starlink satellite

Elon Musk said he will take steps to offer Starlink, his satellite internet offering, to Iranians. He had already made this service available to the Ukrainians after the start of the war against Russia. An increasingly political use of that little thumb from Elon Musk’s empire.

Ukraine, Antarctica and soon Iran? Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, announced on Monday, April 19 intends to apply for an exemption against the American trade embargo on Iran to use its Starlink satellite Internet network.

It all started, as so often happens with the quirky boss of SpaceX and Tesla, with a same-day tweet announcing that Starlink was now available on every continent, including Antarctica.

Elon Musk, “Friend” of Ukraine and Iranians

Connecting the South Pole is good, but for Iranian journalist Erfan Kasraie, who challenges Elon Musk on the microblogging site, offering the service to Iranians would be even better. “Is it technically possible? This could be a game changer in the long run,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Starlink will seek exemption from international sanctions in this regard,” Elon Musk replied. Satellite internet would “give all Iranians unhindered access to the network, wherever they are on the territory,” says Hamza Mudassir, co-founder of British start-up consultancy Platypodes.eu and professor of corporate strategy at Cambridge University.

The Internet in Iran is not only strictly controlled by the authorities. Access is also difficult in rural areas due to a lack of infrastructure. All you need to connect to the network of more than 2,500 satellites launched by Starlink is a modem and antenna. Which may “change the deal,” as Erfan Kasraie points out.

Even Elon Musk did not set foot in the Persian court in a trivial moment. The country has been rocked by anti-regime protests for two days in response to the death of a young Iranian woman after being arrested by vice squads in Tehran.

This isn’t the first time the SpaceX chief has pivoted his Starlink service in crisis situations or tense geopolitical contexts. It did the same in Ukraine, where its satellite internet service was made available to the Ukrainian army from February 2022 to make up for the shortcomings of the traditional internet network, which has been the target of Russian cyberattacks.

This Starlink invasion of the Russo-Ukrainian War was a huge publicity stunt for Elon Musk’s efforts to promote the reliability of his service. “Starlink played a critical role in providing the military coordination that gave Ukrainian artillery an advantage [sur l’armée russe] in the first months of the conflict,” points out the Smithsonian Magazine, the publication of the famous American institute for multidisciplinary research.

In just a few months, Elon Musk presented himself via Starlink as a reliable ally of Ukraine against Russian aggression and as a supporter of the Iranians against the authoritarian excesses of the mullah regime.

American Indians in the Tonga Islands

In fact, it’s sort of a common thread in all of the multi-billionaire’s communications about Starlink. “He uses it partly as a tool to shape his brand image as a dedicated businessman,” notes Hamza Mudassir.

Since its commercial debut in late 2020, Starlink has allowed Elon Musk to play the white knight of internet access. The first to benefit from satellite Internet were a small community of American Indians – the Hoh Tribe – in Washington state. Headlines in the American press quickly multiplied to praise a service that made it possible to “bring an isolated community into the 21st century.”e Century”.

At the same time, Elon Musk provided Starlink to emergency services in Malden, a small northwest Washington state town that was nearly completely destroyed by fires in the fall of 2020.

The Tesla boss then set about building his reputation as a benefactor of connectivity on the international stage. In February 2022, for example, he offered free access to his satellite internet to one of the islands of the Tonga archipelago, which was cut off from the world a month later by the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga volcano.

These numerous free service offerings have been good for Starlink’s business, Smithsonian Magazine points out. Publicity stunts are no stranger to the more than 245% increase in the number of paid Starlink subscribers ($110 a month and $599 for purchase of connection devices) since the beginning of the year, the magazine adds. More than 400,000 people around the world have chosen Elon Musk’s satellite internet.

In fact, Hamza Mudassir believes that Starlink served the economic interests of the entire Elon Musk empire. The multi-billionaire “never runs a classic advertising campaign for his products like Tesla cars, and the awareness of his brands depends heavily on his public image,” recalls the business strategy specialist.

This is one of the reasons that lead the businessman to multiply the provocations on Twitter. But he sometimes goes too far, and his untimely appearances on Twitter may have gotten him in trouble with authorities like the SEC (Security Exchange Commission), who have accused him of using Twitter to influence companies’ stock prices.

god complex?

A question of money and image. The “good works” done thanks to Starlink offer Elon Musk a more solid image boost. But all is not rosy in the realm of satellite internet.

First, the apparent generosity of Elon Musk — offering Starlink for free to both Ukrainian soldiers and American Indians — conceals a ruthless space race that prompted NASA to denounce Starlink’s strategy. The American agency points out that SpaceX is flooding space with its satellites. Elon Musk wants to send more than 30,000 into orbit. It would be a kind of privatization of space in favor of a single man, some astrophysicists complain.

Elon Musk’s appetite for publicity stunts has also taken on new dimensions with the aid to Ukraine. It’s no longer just about helping communities that are isolated or hit by natural disasters. “Should a businessman get involved in geopolitical affairs? It’s a bit complicated from God,” said Hamza Mudassir.

Elon Musk doesn’t appear to be concerned about the geopolitical ramifications of his service offerings. However, on Monday, September 19, Russia accused the United States of “semi-direct intervention in the conflict through the use of civilian space technologies [comprendre Starlink] for military purposes”.

“I’m not sure Iran will scrutinize an American company that wants to make it easier for Iranians to access the Internet,” Hamza Mudassir added. Even in China, in a paper published in May 2022, scientists linked to the Chinese military proposed developing “Starlink satellite destruction” capabilities, which could be used by the American Air Force in the event of a conflict.

Is Elon Musk aware that he’s stoking the various diplomatic fires? Not sure. Shortly after implying that he was ready to offer Starlink to the Iranians, he responded with a simple “OK” to a user who suggested doing the same for Cuba.


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