After the Bell: Satellites of love — Starlink is the new LM Radio
The service is ideally suited to Africa, with its huge distances and large rural populations.
When I was a kid, like lots of kids my age, I used to tune into something called LM Radio, which was a short-wave station that beamed into SA from Maputo (then Lourenço Marques).
The reason we did so was that until the 1980s, the radio waves in SA were firmly controlled by the SABC, which generally shunned rock music.
It’s a little-known fact that in the enormous SABC building in Auckland Park, two floors of offices were once designated to dominees, pastors from the Dutch Reformed Church. Their job was to oversee the moral message of the SABC services and I’m pretty sure they were not big fans of Led Zeppelin.
There was a kind of romance about LM Radio; the signal was always full of crackle, but the music was just fabulous. One of the most popular programmes was the Top 20 countdown, called the LM Hit Parade. Lots of people who would later have a huge influence on radio in SA, including John Berks and David Gresham, to name just two, cut their teeth on LM Radio.
The station was dramatically closed down, at gunpoint, in 1975 by Frelimo when it took over the country.
But soon afterwards, the same concept of broadcasting radio from outside the technical borders of SA moved to the “homelands” and the quality improved so massively that Radio 702, for example, became a regular feature of the daily lives of Johannesburgers.
The concept demonstrated all those years ago by LM Radio was simple: it’s generally a good idea to broadcast what people want to hear. It seems so obvious, but the apartheid apparatchiks didn’t get it. Around the world, political and religious censorship of communication is generally waning for the simple reason that technology moves faster than legislation.
Do you know what the modern version of LM Radio is?
Starlink, as most people know, is Elon Musk’s satellite internet service which has been growing at a gallop around the world.
Starlink announced it had a million subscribers in December last year, and that doubled in the first eight months of this year.
The Starlink receiver is pretty expensive, but the monthly cost is comparable to other internet service providers. So far, about 5,500 Starlink satellites have been launched and the company is already cash-flow positive – but it still wants to launch thousands more satellites, particularly its much larger and more powerful Mk2 version.
The service is ideally suited to Africa, with its huge distances and large rural populations. Eight African countries are now live, with 19 more launching next year, including our neighbour Mozambique.
But, as it has done before, SA communications regulator Icasa has hit out at companies that have been importing and selling Starlink satellite internet terminals into SA, saying the practice is illegal and must stop.
Icasa argues that the Electronic Communications Act states that it may only accept and consider applications for individual network licences if there is a policy direction from the minister of communications in this regard.
Once the minister publishes an invitation to apply in the Government Gazette in terms of the relevant regulations, there are technical specifications to consider. Great.
Starlink has not applied for a licence, not that it can since there is this very tricky and difficult “policy decision” to take. OMG, it’s so hard!
Anyway, Starlink has plenty of other places to go, so SA has not been prioritised. Maybe in time they will get to us – maybe they won’t. But they can’t unless the Minister of Communications decides to wake up and give the people what they want.
But just as we tuned into LM Radio, how can you stop people in SA using Starlink?
Icasa was responding to the fact that two companies have started selling Starlink’s services to South Africans. How can they do that? Pretty easily, because Starlink now sells a “roam” service, which means you can take your terminal wherever you want in the world.
And this is just the start.
The second version of the terminal is now out, and it’s around the size of a computer screen. Because there are so many satellites out there, it no longer has to “follow” a satellite stream, which the existing motorised unit does. That means cheaper terminals are on the way.
I was astounded, but MyBroadband is reporting that there are about 12,400 users in SA, which is more than those using the old ADSL connections.
Icasa says it’s illegal, but I wonder if it really is.
SA’s Constitution protects the freedom of association. Nobody has ever tested whether this freedom covers the right to buy a service that does not interfere with anybody else’s rights.
It seems a stretch, but the whole idea behind freedom of association is rooted in individual liberty, which is something that SA’s constitutional law, as it has unfolded, does protect.
You can feel the ground moving under Icasa, which now reminds me a bit of those old SABC dominees stuck in the past.
Icasa keeps claiming that it is not holding up the process. But then Icasa has not issued new operating licences for network infrastructure or service providers for 13 years. I am not making this up. So much for our champions of the fourth industrial revolution.
Perhaps it’s true that Icasa is waiting breathlessly for an application from Starlink, or one of the other new satellite ISPs which are on the way. And if it happens, they will move like lightning and rural schools and people who live on farms in SA will suddenly have workable internet.
But let’s just say I would be more confident if they had actually managed to issue a licence – to anyone – in the past decade. DM