Business Maverick

BROKEN CONNECTIVITY

Snuffed out — Starlink’s South African customers out in the cold as Musk’s company terminates unapproved service

Snuffed out — Starlink’s South African customers out in the cold as Musk’s company terminates unapproved service
A digital stacked combination of multiple exposures shows a train of brightly lit SpaceX Starlink 24 mission satellites pass the night sky. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CHRISTIAN BRUNA)

While the government says it has had no dealings with the satellite internet provider, and Icasa says it has not received any application for a licence, companies that manage the service locally say they are working on a plan to keep customers connected.

By Wednesday, 1 May, Starlink customers will be left with an inoperative 50cm x 30cm antenna, that could probably be repurposed as an expensive — though compact — coffee table, after they are frozen out of the service. 

Available globally, including in many of our neighbouring countries, Starlink will no longer be providing South African residents access to its high-speed broadband internet service, because Elon Musk’s company refused to comply with the country’s BEE requirements to gift 30% ownership to local historically disadvantaged people. 

Then there’s the small matter of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and the Minister of Communications failing to issue new communications licences in about 13 years.

Earlier this month, Starlink told customers that it will be terminating internet access in unauthorised countries, starting on 30 April.

In Africa, Starlink’s internet service is live in Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia and Benin. Namibia and Lesotho expect service this year, but it is still prohibited in Botswana and South Africa, although Starlink has been working across most of the region thanks to its roaming features. 

Starlink delivers high-speed, low-latency internet to users all over the world through low-Earth orbit satellites, which support streaming, online gaming, video calls and more.

Where Starlink does not have approval to operate, customers have purchased satellite internet terminals through third-party suppliers and worked around the service restrictions through a roaming loophole. 

CNN has reported that Ukrainian frontline troops are experiencing connection problems with Starlink’s internet service, which is being used to run their attack drones, while Russian use of the devices has ramped up — despite being prohibited by US sanctions.

Russian crowdfunders claim to have successfully bypassed sanctions on the use of Starlink, which they buy in third countries.

Starlink, SpaceX and Musk have declined to comment on the report, although he has denied that any terminals have been sold to Russia. 

Daily Maverick’s attempts to contact the company were also unsuccessful, despite trying via social media. Starlink’s website does not offer a contact facility.

In the US, House Democrats have demanded answers from SpaceX about the claims that its technology is being used by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Cut off

Earlier this month, Starlink told customers that it will be terminating internet access in unauthorised countries, starting on 30 April. In an email, it said: “The goal of Starlink is to provide reliable high-speed, low-latency internet to people all around the world, especially for those in rural and remote areas where internet connectivity has not been available, unreliable or too expensive. To do so, we’re working as quickly as possible to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals from local governments globally to be allowed to offer Starlink services in as many places as possible.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Starlink will soon be available in all southern African countries – except South Africa

Citing its terms of service, Starlink said the availability of its mobile service plans is contingent upon various factors, including regulatory approvals. 

“If you are operating your Starlink Kit in an area other than areas designated as ‘Available’ on the Starlink Availability Map, we would like to remind you that this is in violation of the Starlink Terms, and starting April 30th, 2024, you will be unable to connect to the internet except to access your Starlink account where you can make updates to your account.”

“Mobile – Regional” plans are intended for temporary travel and transit, not for permanent use in a location, so the company warned that those who have been using this plan for more than two months outside of the country in which they ordered Starlink, should either change their account country or return to the country in which the service was ordered, as “Otherwise, your service will be restricted”.

Deadlock

This week, Starlink finally applied for a licence to provide internet services in Zimbabwe. But in South Africa, the company is unlikely to do so because it would be incompatible with the Electronic Communications Act. 

In response to a parliamentary question from the DA about whether the government would consider exempting the equity requirement in the public interest, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Mondli Gungubele said that the requirement is derived from section 9(2)(b) of the Act, which would have to be amended.

“Any interested party, including Starlink, can engage the regulator to seek advice on operations in South Africa.

“As a department, we welcome partners and investors to develop and invest in the sector and economy; and appeal that they comply with regulations for the sector.”

‘No dealings’ 

The government says it has had no dealings with the internet provider. Icasa has not received any application for a licence from Starlink, nor has the company approached the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies (DCDT), the department told Daily Maverick. 

All licence applications must go through Icasa, which, while supposedly “independent”, was spoken for by the department, explaining: “Icasa confirms that to date, it has not received an application for any type of licence/certificate from Starlink or any satellite operators providing internet broadband services. Furthermore, Starlink has not approached the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies. It is of utmost importance to note that all licence applications have to go through Icasa and not DCDT.

“The authority (Icasa) encourages innovative technologies and acknowledges Starlink’s endeavours to provide broadband services. Nevertheless, any interested operator, including Starlink, willing to provide telecommunications services at a national scope is required to adhere to the applicable legislative and regulatory licensing prescript, requiring (compliance with the ECA, a licence and a technical approval certificate).” 

The department said while the authority welcomes new applications for the provision of broadband satellite services, it notes that there are already a number of players in the market and encourages Starlink or any other similar service providers to operate within the borders of South Africa, provided that such entities have satisfied the applicable requirements prescribed in the ECA. 

Service providers haven’t given up hope

Meanwhile, News24 has reported that some service providers haven’t given up hope that there might be workarounds to continue operating in South Africa, with Icasa se Push saying it has identified strategies that might keep users connected, despite the legal issues, although it can only test its “solutions” after 30 April to see if they would work. 

Another unnamed company told News24 that they had reached out to Starlink for clarity. “We have been in contact with Starlink themselves and a few options are going around,” they said, adding that their goal was to ensure that their customers remained online. “At this stage, the first of next month will be make or break. That’s when we will see if the solutions work.”

Alan Bush from Icasa se Push, which operates from Mozambique through “Sparkling” (Starlink) resellers across Africa, told Daily Maverick that they had contacted Starlink to inform the company that it has all the regulatory licensing and compliance measures in place for them to operate in South Africa. “To date, we have yet to receive a response from Starlink. We actively explore all possible avenues to facilitate their launch in South Africa and welcome a conversation with them. Our team is determined to leave no stone unturned in our efforts, although we hope it won’t come to an impasse.”

When asked about the recourse available to customers — a Starlink system costs around R17,000 — Bush said since direct purchases from Starlink are not possible in South Africa, the company’s 30-day money-back guarantee does not apply here. “We have established our (own) refund policy, which you can review at icasapush/returns.”

Bush stressed that the hardware remained legal in South Africa, although the service was not. “We do not foresee any issues with the South African government or Starlink regarding the legality of the hardware in South Africa. We have taken extensive measures to ensure our operations align with all local laws and Starlink’s regulations.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Josh Bradley says:

    This is great news for the regulator.
    They can continue their great work managing the spectrum in SA.

  • Peter Smith says:

    The ANC is shooting itself in the foot again. It is precisely because of the ANC and communist style red tape that local businesses and overseas investors are going elsewhere. Already, Namibia and Mozambique are making good progress in taking business from South Africa. Soon, the money will run out – ICASA will have all the communications licenses and Mantashe will have all the mining licenses with no one interested in buying. The mines are already closing. Regulated BEEE is not sustainable. 30 years has been enough. We are already in the 2nd generation after apartheid.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Do the sat phone service providers need government approval for a sat phone to work in SA?

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Starlink is suffering because of monopoly by well known service providers obviously with blessings from politicians.
      Our data is the most expensive.

      • Ben Harper says:

        I doubt Sarlink is “suffering”, they just can’t be bothered with the hoops our pissy backwater government want them to jump through

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    “Gift 30%” – what an unusual request!

    More snouts for the trough!

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Go glorious liberation movementeers go! What a fabulous win.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Sooner or later it will become clear to the morons who run this country that while they can extort money from locals through their BEE scams because we have no real choice but to comply, foreigners will, as our economy continues to implode and become less attractive to investors, increasingly tell them to foxtrot oscar.

  • John Patson says:

    Heaven forbid that I want to stir or anything, but when it comes to the Internet, is not everyone, alive before around 1995, locally historically disadvantaged?

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Depends on the severity of the disadvantage, if it includes education it will filter to generations past 1994, any 10 year old not educated in 1994 only felt the effects 15 years later and off springs of that 10 year old might feel it now.
      It’s this generation that might be hooked on the grant by default.

  • John Kuhl says:

    REALLY …DO PEOPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT IS BEING DONE TO THE GENERATIONS OF PEOPLE BORN AFTER 1994……THE SYSTEM IS SCREWING THEM OVER LIKE YOU CANNOT BELIEVE.

  • Timothy Van Blerck says:

    Elon stans having a aneurysm after realising that Rocket Jesus has to obey the same laws of that land as every other legal entity. There are other good reasons why Starlink needs to be regulated in SA, SALT for one

  • Marc Vivier says:

    Another reason (among a multitude!) to vote for CapeXit & for a REFERENDUM !! 💓

  • Steve Daniel says:

    This is SERIOUS for those of us in Rural areas reliant on patchy, poor internet service and on sometimes NONEXISTENT gsm coverage.
    Our very Lives at stake when there is NO SIGNAL and this NO COMMUNICATION.
    Please Please your support is desperately needed…

    • Andre Swart says:

      You understand the severity of the situation!

      When VIOLENCE ERUPTS in SA, the revolutionaries will shut off the internet … for dubious reasons!

      Then STARLINK can keep us connected to the rest of the world!

      It’s vital!

      • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

        And it’s the sad reality Andre without a non government aligned provider we are screwed, mtn shut the network in Eswatini when the military was killing people there, it is a known fact lamented by humatarian organisations.

  • Agf Agf says:

    I’m so glad Elon refused to buy in to the disgusting ANC corruption. It just shows what big corporations worldwide think of SA.

  • Andrew Newman says:

    I assume Starlink is planning to make a deal with South African government.
    Now that Starlink is abiding to government instructions an application to operate in SA may be looked on more favorably in future.

  • Nicholas Cocciuti says:

    It reminds me of the time the apartheid government delayed the launch of television in this country for a few decades! Throttling communication is a sign of oppression. We’ve experienced enough of this nonsense in South Africa. The government needs to be changed.

  • dexter m says:

    Missing from this article is what is the position of the current network providers on this move , they had a major hand in drafting the current law. Why are they not servicing the current SA Starlink customers .

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