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War-rocked Sudan jumps on Starlink to beat internet cuts

The country is experiencing a near-total telecoms blackout, as mobile network providers have been critically hit by disruptions

War-rocked Sudan jumps on Starlink to beat internet cuts
With major mobile networks helpless, SpaceX's satellite internet service is coming to the rescue

It is no longer news that Sudan, a northeastern African country, has been battling rolling internet blackouts as a result of an escalating conflict between its military and paramilitary forces.

What started out as a simple conflict has metamorphosed into a full-scale humanitarian crisis culminating in countless injuries, loss of thousands of lives, and destruction of national property.

The communications network disruption, which has been pinned on the dubiety of paramilitary the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has left the fight-weary populace in the dark and overly tensed, unable to make payments, contact the outside world, or get foreign aid.

For context, the RSF has been exchanging firepower with the (main) Sudanese army since April last year, displacing around 8 million people and bringing the country to the brink of famine.

Metrics shared by internet monitoring group Netblocks show that the country is experiencing a near-total telecoms blackout, as mobile network providers—Sudani, MTN, and Zain—are largely offline.

Per some reports, since August last year, the RSF has resorted to Starlink, Space X's satellite internet service, to circumvent the situation. Videos and pictures of the group using the kits have surfaced on social media, though they are yet to be officially evidenced.

But the RSF are not the only adopters of Starlink; these devices have been increasingly turned to by Sudanese who have found a way to import them through South Sudanese and Chadian back doors supposedly under the RSF's control.

In the few months Starlink kits have become a vital wartime infrastructure, the dishes have been spotted atop countless city and village rooftops, as internet users look to bypass legacy communications that have proven unreliable of late.

Speaking to local news outlet Radio Dabanga, El Basma, a vendor that supplies Starlink kits to Darfur, a region in western Sudan, said the devices are majorly coming from the United Arab Emirates through South Sudan to a distribution hub in Nyala, the capital city of the state of South Darfur.

Starlink is yet to register for legal operations in Sudan and it has been taken off the table in South Sudan and Chad. As such, it makes sense that these kits are being imported from Middle Eastern jurisdictions where the service has obtained a license – Gaza, for example.

In August 2023, Anonymous Sudan, a notorious hacktivist group, cyber-attacked X (formerly Twitter) to pressure Elon Musk into speeding up the launch of Starlink in the country. Also, the Sudanese government has yet to crack down on the service's unlicensed presence.

Starlink sellers in Nyala are also sourcing from Niger and Nigeria, where they have been green-lit by telecoms watchdogs, and transported through Chad before they finally get into the country. This process affects kit prices, as they are sold for up to SDG 2.2 million ($3,660) as opposed to the official $599 pricing.

United Nations Relief Coordinator Martins Griffiths has condemned the ongoing shutdown, describing it as unacceptable and calling for immediate rectification. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) predicts that the now-10-month civil crisis will put 25 million Sudanese in need of aid.

Digital rights advocacy group AccessNow has also criticized the recurring development and through its KeepItOn coalition urged for the internet censorship to be reversed as soon as possible.

"With the conflict escalating and the security situation deteriorating, people in Sudan must remain connected with each other and with the world. Internet access is fundamental for sharing information about safe havens and routes to safety for enabling access by emergency services and to humanitarian aid, and for reporting and documenting casualties and human rights abuses," the communique reads.

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