In brief

  • Elon Musk has offered to help to Belarus, where Internet outages have coincided with a fourth day of protests.
  • The SpaceX CEO is soon to test his satellite constellation, Starlink, but hasn't yet revealed a location.
  • Belarus presents a strong case as a test location for Starlink, say advocates for Internet freedom.

Belarusians are petitioning Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to test its Starlink satellite system in their country after the CEO tweeted to offer sympathy and support.

Internet outages have coincided with a fourth day of protests throughout Belarus, after a controversial presidential election on Sunday, saw Aleksandr Lukashenko re-elected to a sixth term in office.

Musk’s tweet was in response to an initiative to highlight the plight of Belarusians, posted alongside a video of incidents of police brutality toward protesters. Musk responded: “Sorry to hear this. What can we do to help?”

His response was greeted with a flood of requests to deploy Starlink—a constellation of over 500 satellites promising access to the Internet from virtually anywhere on earth. The mega-constellation is due to start beta testing later this summer

A petition on change.org, asking Musk to choose Belarus as the constellation's first test case is nearing its target of 7,500 votes. However, SpaceX has still to disclose location specifics for the first round of testing. 

Belarus’s centralized Internet

Belarus presents a strong case as a test location for Starlink. Its Internet blackout is widely believed to be government imposed. Experts have warned that a centralized infrastructure (as is the case in Belarus) makes it much easier to shut the Internet down—a measure already employed in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and other countries at times of civil unrest.

But Lukashenko has denied responsibility, blaming the outages on distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks from abroad, without presenting evidence. 

The outages mean that the only avenues for Belarusians to access the Internet are via standard satellite uplink, or with custom-designed connection routes via neighboring countries using mobile service and WiFi. 

Privacy browser Tor, and Canadian proxy service Psiphon have both seen a surge of recent activity from Belarus, as people employ alternative methods to access accurate news and information.

But bypassing the restrictions requires tech skills most Belarusians don’t have, and current satellite services are prohibitively expensive. 

By contrast, the Starlink constellation has been designed as a low-cost Internet service, for areas with poor connections. Musk’s bold aim is to bridge the digital divide.

Belarusians are now desperate to know whether he can bridge a political divide too, and he may have some leverage.

Earlier this year Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belarus invited Elon Musk to test his recently announced autonomous taxi service in Belarus. He hasn't yet responded to the request.

Lukashenko has also said that he was given a Tesla by Musk—a claim the savvy entrepreneur denies.