Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | 19:47 WIB

Starlink: a challenge to global licensing commitments

Jakarta, IO – Elon Musk’s Starlink has been granted permission to operate in Indonesia and other Asian countries, but it actively seeks to disregard international commitments as the basis for licensing the Starlink LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite system. Starlink is a mega-constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. 

Indonesian Communication Minister Budi Arie Setiadi and senior official Usman Kansong confirmed the news reported in Reuters and Agence France Press (AFP) regarding Starlink receiving the license. 

Licenses for Starlink and other LEO satellite systems depend on international agreement commitments to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which protect vital GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit) satellites used for communication, defense, and satellite TV broadcasts from radio interference caused by LEO systems like the Starlink mega-constellation. 

Although the latest conference on the ITU treaty (WRC 2023, Dubai) firmly rejected America-SpaceX’s proposal to eliminate global treaty limitations (known as Article 22 EPFD limitations), Starlink continues to request the ITU abandon these treaty limits. Starlink’s pressure is officially documented in several input documents submitted to the ITU satellite study groups in May 2024. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has utilized proxy countries like the United States and Tonga to urge the ITU to abandon the carefully crafted treaty.

ITU treaty limitations provide necessary interference protection to safeguard crucial communication, defense, and TV broadcast satellites in GEO orbit used by Indonesia and other countries worldwide. Several objections have also been submitted to the U.S. FCC, indicating Starlink’s mega-constellation design violates ITU limitations. 

Elon Musk is attempting to remove the ITU interference protection from vital satellite systems that are competing with Starlink in Indonesia and other countries. His move not only raises questions about Musk’s anti-competitive prerogatives but also about his geopolitical objectives. Ukrainian military forces relying on Starlink for crucial operations found themselves incapacitated when Elon Musk ordered Starlink services’ cessation during a critical moment in the ongoing conflict. Elon Musk has also agreed to activate the use of Starlink by Israel under an agreement with the Israeli government. 

Therefore, Starlink has become the sole global provider of critical satellite communication infrastructure, leading countries to entirely depend on SpaceX as the gatekeeper for space resources and information flow. No single country or corporation can collect such monopolistic power. Elon Musk actively disregards licensing commitments to the United States, Indonesia, and other nations, leaving no room to expect fair competition. The future of Indonesia’s national interests in space and information has now become uncertain. 

Indonesian satellite operators, telecommunications providers, TV stations, and the defense sector have invested billions of dollars in satellite infrastructure. The SATRIA project, the Indonesian government’s national GEO satellite project, has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in satellite infrastructure that relies on globally agreed-upon ITU commitments that Elon Musk seeks to remove for the sake of Starlink’s dominance. Granting the licenses to Starlink and confirming Elon Musk’s efforts to remove the ITU protection disregards other licensed competitors and risks the billions of dollars invested. 

Several countries are taking precautions and carefully evaluating the impact of granting licenses to Starlink or giving in their national interests to Elon Musk. India is prudently considering conditional licensing with Starlink. Elon Musk has allowed the sale of unauthorized Starlink services in India and elsewhere, without licenses. In a recent Indian public forum, Starlink representatives admitted that Elon Musk’s insistence on disregarding licensing commitments enables Starlink to reduce costs by deploying fewer satellites. Elon Musk aims to remove the competitors’ protections and cause radio interference, which will increase the competitors’ costs while lowering his own. Tonga, Elon’s proxy country, is addressing competition issues related to Starlink’s licensing requests. 

It is unclear whether the Indonesian Ministry of Transportation has conducted the necessary testing to determine whether the entire Starlink network, which includes over 30,000 satellites, can meet ITU treaty commitments to protect Indonesia’s GEO satellites from radio interference before giving a license to Elon Musk. There have been reports that Starlink interferes with delicate scientific radioastronomy studies. 

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It is also unclear whether the ministry has done environmental and sustainability studies to analyze the hazards that such a huge satellite system poses to spaceflight safety, space debris, and excessive consumption of orbital spectrum resources. The ITU agreement, signed by the United States, Indonesia, and over 190 countries, focuses on preventing irrational and unfair (monopolistic) use of limited and globally shared orbital spectrum resources. The ITU urges countries to regulate large LEO constellations domestically. 

A resource-consuming LEO mega-constellation like Starlink can deplete these resources while simultaneously increasing competitors’ costs by causing radio interference and lowering their service quality. There is no evidence of a competition assessment conducted by the Ministry, as they also held no public consultations before granting the license to Starlink. 

Indonesia and other countries that rely on and profit from a competitive and prospering satellite business should begin to prioritize the safe, fair, and rational use of limited space resources as top national interests. Many countries, including Indonesia and Ukraine, are currently attempting to separate their fate from Elon Musk’s uncertainties.

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