Elon Musk’s Starlink is disrupting Greenland’s expensive internet market | Polarjournal
This photo shows 60 Starlink satellites stacked on top of each other before they were released from SpaceX's Falcon 9-rocket in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This photo shows 60 Starlink satellites stacked on top of each other before they were released from SpaceX’s Falcon 9-rocket in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The new Low Earth Orbit satellites could make the country dependent on a foreign tech giant but could also help provide stable access in remote parts. Most of all, Greenland needs a proactive telecommunication policy, expert tells Polar Journal.

If you look up into the sky on a crisp polar night, you might notice some unusual foreign objects. If it is not the aurora nor bright, twinkling stars, it might be new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites from the internet provider Starlink.

Because in the past few years, SpaceX, a spacecraft company owned by South African businessman Elon Musk, has sent thousands of these satellites into orbit around the Earth. They now form a constellation known as Starlink that are visible in night skies across the globe, including the Arctic, and that provide access to the internet without the use of cables.

In most parts of the world, the internet the new satellites offer is too expensive to be competitive, while in Antarctica, they are revolutionizing the way visitors access the internet.

In Greenland, where internet connections are among the world’s most expensive, the truth lies somewhere in-between. Here, the new service brings a range of potential problems but also a range of opportunities.

“There is a fear that the new Starlink satellites will undermine the Greenlandic public internet provider Tusass. At the same time, there is a hope that Starlink could help provide better internet access to people in remote villages in Greenland which is such an important thing these days,” Signe Ravn-Højgaard, co-founder of the Think Tank for Digital Infrastructure told Polar Journal.

When moving across the night sky, Starlink satellites sometimes stand out clearly. This photo from 2019, shows six Low Earth Orbit satellites above the US state of Georgia. Photo: Jud McCraine, Wikimedia Commons
When moving across the night sky, Starlink satellites sometimes stand out clearly. This photo from 2019, shows six Low Earth Orbit satellites above the US state of Georgia. Photo: Jud McCraine, Wikimedia Commons

Illegal use of Starlink?

The Greenlandic Telecommunications Authoritiy recently published a manual which  established that the use of Starlink is illegal in Greenland. However, according to data from Starlink’s website, the service is already being used in several locations in the country, even though the equipment necessary cannot be purchased in Greenland.

This has made authorities suspicious of illegal activity.

“The Telecommunications Authority is not aware of the validity of the information on the website, but this is an indication that Starlink already exists in Greenland,” a representative of the government body told Sermitsiaq last month.

The reason that services like Starlink are illegal in the country is that they threaten to undermine the public internet provider Tusass. Tusass has a monopoly on internet services in Greenland but is also legally obliged to provide access to all parts of the country. Doing so in a large country like Greenland is a costly affair, and since the population is small, the price, which is distributed equally among all users, ends up being high.

This is the argument of the Greenlandic government gave recently, and the one that has traditionally been used to argue for the current legislation. But according to Signe Ravn-Højgaard, it is not necessarily true anymore.

“First of all, these new technologies could be a way to provide internet access to the most remote areas where internet access is most costly, making the overall service cheaper,” she said.

“And secondly, they could help create what in telecommunication language is called ‘redundancy’. That is to say back-up systems that could be used in case the main ones fail,” Signe Ravn-Højgaard said.

Each white dot represents a Starlink satellite. As of January  2024, 5289 Starlink satellites were in Low Earth Orbit. At least 12,000 are planned to be in deployed in the coming years. Photo: Screenshot from Starlink website.
Each white dot represents a Starlink satellite. As of January, 2024, 5289 Starlink satellites were in Low Earth Orbit. At least 12,000 are planned to be in deployed in the coming years. Photo: Screenshot from Starlink website.

The backbone infrastructure

Today, these main telecommunication systems in Greenland, the so-called ‘backbone infrastructure’, consists of two underwater cables; one to Iceland and one to Canada, both operated by Tusass.

The two cables meet in Qaqortoq in South Greenland and connect Western Greenland all the way to Aasiaat by the Disko Bay via a single cable. From here on up, internet is provided via a radio signal all the way to Upernavik.

Additionally, Tusass uses a geostationary satellite from the Spanish operator Hispasat. This satellite provides internet to the country’s remotest parts; the areas in the far north around Qaanaaq as well as the eastern towns of Tasiilaq and Ittoqqortoormiit.  

For technical reasons, these geostationary satellites need to orbit at a height close to 35.786 kilometers and are located in the same position above equator. This means that the connection it provides, especially in very northern and southern latitudes, has higher latency than the LEO satellites. The LEO satellites orbit at a height of 80 to 2000 kilometers above the ground and therefore also have the potential to provide higher capacities than geostationary satellites.

Signe Ravn-Højgaard represents the Think Tank for Digital Infrastruture. She wrote her Ph.d. at the Department of Journalism at Ilisimatursafik, the University of Greenland. Photo: The Think Tank for Digital Infrastructure
Signe Ravn-Højgaard represents the Think Tank for Digital Infrastruture. She wrote her Ph.d. at the Department of Journalism at Ilisimatursafik, the University of Greenland. Photo: The Think Tank for Digital Infrastructure

Decision to be made soon

“Internet as a commodity is changing. It used to be much more costly to provide internet and telecommunication to remote areas compared to city centres. For this reason, telecommunication was monopolized to ensure universal access, both in Greenland and elsewhere. Now LEO-satellite companies like Starlink challenge this argument by providing internet at the same costs everywhere,” Signe Ravn-Højgaard said.

“And by beaming internet down to Greenland directly from space without need for local access network they challenge publicly owned monopoly telecommunication company in Greenland. With this technological development current tele legislation becomes outdated. I believe these changes demands that Greenlandic policy makers take a more proactive approach to tele-policy” she said.

And, Signe Ravn-Højgaard pointed out, there is a deadline on decisions about new telecommunication policies.

“The two cables from Iceland and Canada were installed in 2008 and have a lifetime of about 25 years,” she said.

“This means that  Greenland has to consider how it wants its future telecommunication infrastructure to look like. In this decision, my advice would be to consider if this new technology provided by Starlink and others can be included.”

“This could be through a cooperation with Tusass, although I am not sure Starlink is interested in such a partnership. They are so large that if they want, they can basically ignore Tusass’ monopoly and local regulation,” she said.

The stateowned company Tusass has a monopoly on most telecommunication in Greenland but also has an obligation to provide internet to all parts of the country. Part of this obligation is filled through radio signals. Photo: Tusass AS
The stateowned company Tusass has a monopoly on most telecommunication in Greenland but also has an obligation to provide internet to all settlements in the country. Part of this obligation is filled through radio signals. Photo: Tusass AS

Could challenge national authority

Whatever the happens to Greenland’s internet access, the development might be followed closely in other countries. Since the Earth’s polar regions are the first places where LEO satellite technology will become competitive, they could be a harbinger of what’s to come in other regions of the world.

“It is hard to predict how the deployment of LEO satellites develop and if prices will continue to drop. If they do, the existing digital infrastructure in many places will face similar challenges to Greenland. From a research perspective, this is why the Greenlandic case is so interesting for us to follow,” Signe Ravn-Højgaard said.

In Arctic Canada and Alaska, Starlink is competitive already, she estimates. In northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway (including Svalbard), cable and terrestrial connections are so well-developed that Starlink is not competitive at the moment. And in Russia’s Arctic regions, Starlink is completely blocked for geopolitical reasons.

“A decisive factor in how the future of LEO satellite internet will look is how successful Starlink and its competitors is in keeping prices down and capacity high. At the moment, Starlink is expanding their infrastructure in space rapidly,” Signe Ravn-Højgaard said.

“If they are successful, we will see big tech companies controlling yet larger parts of the digital infrastructure that used to be largely nationally controlled. This could potentially challenge national autonomy, nationally bound regulation, and democratic oversight mechanisms,” she said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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