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Business News/ Companies / Musk’s Starlink cracks down on growing black market

Musk’s Starlink cracks down on growing black market

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has begun a crackdown on users who are connecting to its Starlink high-speed internet service from countries where it isn’t authorized.

A Starlink satellite on the roof of a home in Galisteo, New Mexico, US. Photographer: Cate Dingley/Bloomberg

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has begun a crackdown on users who are connecting to its Starlink high-speed internet service from countries where it hasn’t been authorized—taking steps to close an expanding black market for the company’s satellite kits highlighted by a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has begun a crackdown on users who are connecting to its Starlink high-speed internet service from countries where it hasn’t been authorized—taking steps to close an expanding black market for the company’s satellite kits highlighted by a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

Starlink customers in Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa have received email notifications from the company in recent days, warning that their access to the service would be terminated by the end of the month. The emails, viewed by the Journal, noted that using Starlink in areas where it hasn’t been approved by local regulators was against the company’s terms of service.

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Starlink customers in Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa have received email notifications from the company in recent days, warning that their access to the service would be terminated by the end of the month. The emails, viewed by the Journal, noted that using Starlink in areas where it hasn’t been approved by local regulators was against the company’s terms of service.

“The availability of our Mobile Service Plans is contingent upon various factors, including regulatory approvals," the emails said, referring to Starlink roaming products that allow subscribers to use its internet services in different countries.

The notifications were sent just days after the Journal published an investigation into the growing black market that has allowed users—including Russian military units fighting in Ukraine and a brutal militia in Sudan—to bypass local regulatory restrictions on Starlink.

A SpaceX spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

SpaceX’s Starlink sells internet connections using the world’s largest fleet of satellites in low-Earth orbit. The company markets its service, which users access via white, pizza-box-sized devices that connect to Starlink satellites, as an easy and fast way to get the internet in remote or rural areas where regular broadband connections might be unavailable or unreliable.

Since launching the first operational Starlink satellites in 2019, SpaceX has been rushing to get regulators around the world to approve the service. By late March, 72 countries had authorized Starlink, according to the company.

Jurisdictions that haven’t approved the service include India and much of Africa. The service also isn’t available in Russia and China, and SpaceX isn’t seeking permission to offer Starlink there, according to the official Starlink availability map.

But thousands of users across the globe have found ways around local restrictions, usually by purchasing Starlink kits in countries where the service is authorized and then signing up for one of the company’s roaming packages. Middlemen companies that offer to activate Starlink and send the kits to users in places where they aren’t officially available have sprung up in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Mozambique.

Starlink said in a corporate presentation on its 2023 performance that it had more than 300,000 customers using the service while traveling.

In its emails to users in recent days, Starlink said that its regional roaming plans “are intended for temporary travel and transit, not for permanent use in a location." Users who have been roaming on Starlink for more than two months without returning to the country where they ordered their device will see their service restricted, the emails said.

The Journal tracked Starlink devices to Russian soldiers fighting on the front line in Ukraine and to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that the U.S. has accused of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in its war with the country’s military.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb said officials from the Pentagon, Ukraine and SpaceX have been working to prevent Russian forces from using Starlink. Ukraine’s military began using Starlink soon after Russia’s invasion in 2022 and Kyiv has been pressuring SpaceX to turn off devices used by the Russian military on Ukrainian territory.

At an industry event last week, Plumb declined to discuss details but said the parties involved were making progress.

“Starlink is a commercial product. It’s available on the commercial market," he said. “Certainly, Russia has no problem trying to buy things through [the] black market."

In recent months, authorities in several African countries—including Sudan, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo—had issued notices to the public that the use of Starlink was illegal. In Zimbabwe, police had begun confiscating Starlink kits and arrested and fined some users.

Gift Machengete, the director-general of the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, said he had a discussion with SpaceX representatives, including Musk, about the use of Starlink in the country. The following day, Starlink emailed users in Zimbabwe, saying it had been directed by Potraz to disable their service.

In the email, Starlink also encouraged users to contact the agency “to communicate your support for Starlink to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals in Zimbabwe."

Musk once expressed limited concern about Starlink offering internet service in countries using a technology that links satellites together and thus avoids needing permission to develop on-the-ground infrastructure to support the service. Asked if the technology could cause regulatory issues, he said, “They can shake their fist at the sky."

More recently, the executive made clear that Starlink’s expansion depended in part on securing permission from various authorities. “Some countries are probably unlikely to approve our system, but most countries, we think we should be able to get to," he said, according to a video of a talk he gave.

In Sudan, owners of Starlink devices started getting notifications late last week about the impending shutdown. Most of them have been using the service via its regional roaming option for Africa, which costs around $65 a month.

Two Sudanese officials said that after Sudan’s telecommunications regulator didn’t get a response on its concerns over Starlink from SpaceX’s Global Licensing and Activation office in the U.S., it contacted SpaceX’s Middle East and Africa division in early April. The agency requested that the devices be turned off in areas controlled by the rebels, the officials.

“RSF fighters have the internet even deep in the deserts; the military commanders want this to end," one of the officials said. “They have been pressuring SpaceX."

But there are fears that severing Starlink connections in Sudan could cut off a lifeline for millions of people who have been in a telecommunications blackout for more than two months.

Shire Shadia, a Sudanese health worker exiled in Uganda, says that Starlink was the only way family members stuck in the war-torn capital, Khartoum, have been able to contact her. “Every day, they go near a camp of RSF (fighters) to find the Starlink network to communicate with us," she said. “It’s the only way we have been communicating."

Many Sudanese have also been relying on Starlink connections to receive remittances from relatives living abroad that allow them to purchase food and other necessities. Aid agencies warn that parts of Sudan are likely to slip into famine in the coming weeks or months, potentially claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.

Some aid groups have also relied on the service to communicate with local staff, said Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert and fellow with the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute. “This is the worst possible time for there to be limitations on aid agencies’ ability to communicate," he said.

In South Africa, a teacher said he had bought a Starlink device while vacationing in Canada to bring internet to his school in the small rural town of Brandvlei.

“The kids are more interested in school since we’ve modernized it," said the teacher, who worries that the shutdown of Starlink in South Africa would again take his students offline.

“How do I explain something like this ban… to the kids and parents?" he said.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com, Gabriele Steinhauser at Gabriele.Steinhauser@wsj.com, Alexandra Wexler at alexandra.wexler@wsj.com and Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com

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