The Amazon has become the main market in Brazil for Starlink, a satellite internet company owned by South African billionaire Elon Musk.
Launched in the region in September 2022, Starlink is already the isolated leader among fixed satellite broadband providers in the legal Amazon, with antennas installed in 90% of the region’s municipalities by July this year, according to an exclusive survey by BBC News Brasil.
Most of these customers are in difficult-to-access regions of the Amazon, where there is no traditional broadband internet infrastructure.
In May 2022, after shaking hands with then-president Jair Bolsonaro at a luxury resort in the interior of São Paulo, the businessman said he was “super excited for the launch of Starlink for 19 thousand disconnected schools in rural areas and environmental monitoring of the Amazon “.
The promise never came to fruition, according to the Ministry of Education and state secretariats.
But data from Anatel (National Telecommunications Agency) analyzed by BBC News Brasil reveals that the company already has private customers in 697 of the 772 municipalities in the legal Amazon (formed by Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantins and part of Maranhão).
Starlink enables important advances, such as the possibility of using credit and debit cards and Pix in cities that did not have high-speed internet. But the expansion of Musk’s technology also drives illegal activities, Brazilian authorities point out to BBC News Brasil.
“Ibama reports that it has become common to find Starlink antennas in mining sites,” the agency said in the report.
Images obtained exclusively by the BBC show antennas from Musk’s company alongside weapons, ammunition and gold collected in operations by the Federal Police and Ibama.
The company’s dominance in connecting isolated regions raises questions about national security and sovereignty, according to Brazilian and foreign experts interviewed by the report, especially after the recent controversy over Ukrainian dependence on Starlink antennas in the war against the Russian Army.
Among all 124 municipalities that form the legal Amazon border with other countries, according to the survey carried out by the report, only one did not have Starlink antennas until the month of July.
Contacted several times, the company led by Elon Musk did not respond to requests for comment from BBC News Brasil about its rapid expansion in Brazil, the promise of internet in schools, and the use of its technology for criminal activities in the forest.
Starlink revolutionized the market by launching a huge constellation of satellites that orbit the planet at low altitude, making the connection speed between satellites and the ground faster.
More than 5,000 Starlink satellites have already been launched into space, Celestrak, a North American laboratory that monitors satellites, told BBC News Brasil.
This huge set allows Elon Musk’s company to bring quality internet connection to remote and distant places, where there is no local infrastructure such as cables and poles — which is the case in much of the Amazon.
But this can put important decisions about countries and governments in the hands of the entrepreneur.
Starlink became the target of data security debates around the world in early September, when Elon Musk admitted that he had not allowed the Ukrainian government access to the Starlink network to avoid being linked to what he defined as a “major act of war”. .
“If it had agreed to the request, SpaceX (the company that sends the satellites used by Starlink into space) would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and escalation of conflict,” said Musk, who was criticized by Ukrainian authorities.
Speaking to BBC News Brasil, Professor TS Kelso, former head of the Institute of Technology and the Space Analysis Division of the United States Air Force Space Command, said that the debate on national sovereignty is “especially significant”.
“Communications systems are often kept under government control for a variety of reasons, from preventing illicit behavior to suppressing dissent,” he says.
“It is vitally important for national security, for example for Defense, to have secure and reliable communications systems. Allowing any company – or individual – to unilaterally decide these issues appears to have serious implications for national security,” he continues.
Anthropology of technology expert David Nemer, professor at the University of Virginia (USA), agrees.
“When we talk about the internet, we’re not just talking about Twitter or Facebook. We’re talking about vital services for the functioning of a city. Giving this power to Starlink is very worrying”, he assesses.
The Ministry of Defense told the reporter that it would not take a position on the issue.
Gold, weapons, heavy ammunition and Starlink antennas have become “the new normal” in seizures by Brazilian security forces in illegal mining areas, according to an Ibama spokesperson, told BBC News Brasil.
According to the agency, from the beginning of the year until September 4th, 32 antenna seizures were carried out in operations to combat illegal mining.
In the last major operation against miners on indigenous lands on the Tapajós River (PA) alone, five Starlink antennas were seized or destroyed.
“In general, the antennas are placed in camps and on mining dredgers,” said the agency.
Access to high-speed internet has made the work of miners and wood and drug traffickers in the region easier, experts say.
Until the company arrived, the main means they had in isolated locations to communicate about the arrival of shipments or Federal Police repression operations was the radio.
“Now they do everything via WhatsApp,” says a Federal Police employee who requested anonymity.
For Professor Nemer, from the University of Virginia, the use of antennas in mining is “not a surprise”.
“One of the arguments with which Elon Musk tries to promote Starlink is to take the internet to where the internet has never reached. But these are precarious places, where people do not have the means to buy and maintain a satellite internet connection, which It’s still extremely expensive,” he says.
“This propaganda about digital inclusion is a fallacy, a myth. Those who can actually afford these services are people with some financial power (…) So it doesn’t surprise me that these antennas have fallen into the hands of miners, since they have condition to pay.”
The initial Starlink monthly fee in Brazil is R$185. The installation kit starts at R$1,400 — but resellers charge up to R$5,000 for the antenna in remote locations in the Amazon in groups of miners.
Transformation in isolated communities
Technology, at the same time, brought positive transformations to cities and communities far from large centers.
In January, Yanomami indigenous people installed a Starlink antenna that now allows high-speed communication between health center professionals and family members of patients in isolated communities in the Indigenous Land.
“Our internet is working perfectly,” Junior Yanomami, president of the Yanomami Urihi association, told BBC News Brasil.
“It has helped exceptionally, both for the health team, who daily passes on information and rescue requests, and for the Yanomami, who communicate with us about everything that happens in the region where the internet is installed”, adds the indigenous leader.
In cities in Roraima and Acre, residents can finally use debit or credit cards — and even make payments via Pix —, thanks to the stability and speed of the internet connection via Starlink.
“I spent ten days with the Yawanawá people there in Acre and it was a very interesting experience. The internet (Starlink) is something new in their territory (…) and it made communication between the villages a lot easier”, says David Nemer.
“They make exchanges and are all the time dealing with the ‘white man’ in the cities. They have a bank account, and it is easier to carry out bank transactions. The internet makes selling handicrafts much easier. (…) It is something they They are still exploring and investigating, so it’s a little early to see what, in the long term, this could actually bring to the territory.”
Controversy over schools
Elon Musk used his personal Twitter account to announce “the launch of Starlink for 19 thousand disconnected schools” in the Amazon in May 2022, months before the company’s activities begin in the North of the country.
More than a year later, BBC News Brasil consulted the Ministry of Education and education departments of all states that form the legal Amazon about the progress of the program.
“We verified with the Basic Education Technology and Innovation area that there is no formal partnership, within the scope of the Ministry of Education (MEC), with Starlink”, informed the federal agency.
The Roraima Department of Education and Sports reported that “to date, no school in the state education network has internet via Starlink”.
The government of Pará said that “the aforementioned partnership announcement between the last government and Starlink did not benefit schools in Pará” and that it is preparing its own tender to expand school digitalization.
The Tocantins government stated that “public schools in the state did not receive any internet signal via Starlink.”
The Maranhão secretariat informed “that it does not have a partnership with the company”.
The governments of Amazonas, Amapá, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Acre did not respond to the report.
This text was originally published here.