Thousands using Starlink in SA, but regulations mean its potential is unlikely to be unleashed

South Africa faces regulatory challenges in obtaining a direct Starlink rollout, leading to the country being classified as a low-priority area by SpaceX. However, a local ISP, IT Lec, has been bulk-importing Starlink kits, enabling over 2,600 sign-ups for the satellite broadband service via its roaming feature. The ISP charges R15,000 for the kit, and R1,799 per month for residential service with roaming. South Africa’s stringent ownership requirements for telecoms licensees, along with regulatory hurdles, pose obstacles for a local Starlink rollout. While awaiting solutions, IT Lec may register a Starlink account in Mozambique to serve neighbouring countries and avoid export issues.

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Bad news for Starlink in South Africa — despite thousands already using it

By Hanno Labuschagne

Starlink’s parent company SpaceX regards South Africa as a low-priority area for rollout due to regulations that make it challenging to provide its service directly to customers in the country.

That is according to an Internet service provider (ISP) that has been bulk-importing the satellite service’s kits into the country.

While not officially launched in South Africa, Starlink’s roaming service allows locals to use its uncapped and fast satellite broadband, as long as they can get one of the company’s antennas and routers across the border.

Northern Cape-based ISP IT Lec has been handling the ordering and importing process on behalf of its customers for several months.

It charges customers R15,000 for the Starlink kit, with all taxes and import duties included, and R1,799 per month for the residential service with roaming activated.

The company told MyBroadband that it had over 2,600 Starlink sign-ups as of 31 July 2023.

It is important to note that this number does not account for people who have imported the kits themselves or signed up through other ISPs like Quick Connect Wireless.

That means there could be hundreds or thousands more using Starlink’s roaming service in South Africa than currently known.

Imported Starlink kits awaiting delivery at one of IT Lec’s storage facilities

IT Lec also told MyBroadband that it had again received official confirmation from Starlink that South Africa was low on its list of prioritised countries for an official rollout.

The company explained that Starlink placed countries in one of three categories when it came to its launch schedule:

  1. Highest priority â€” Countries without registration/licencing requirements
  2. Medium priority â€” Countries requiring registration/licencing with minimal foreseen issues
  3. Lowest priority â€” Countries likely to have challenging registration/licencing issues

South Africa is currently placed in the third category.

The major hurdle facing a local Starlink rollout is an Electronics Communications Act requirement for telecoms licensees to be 30% owned by historically-disadvantaged groups (HDG), including black people, women, youth, and people with disabilities.

Without meeting the HDG criteria, Starlink cannot get a licence to offer its service directly to customers, as it does in other countries.

Aside from the HDG requirement, the Internet Service Providers’ Association (Ispa) has pointed out the regulator has not issued any individual electronic communications services (ECS) or ECNS licences in several years.

Ironically, it explained Icasa’s failure to issue a new invitation to apply for these licences negatively affected small ISPs that contributed positively to the industry’s BEE goals.

Read more: Starlink standoff: South Africa is missing out and falling behind – Katzenellenbogen

IT Lec pauses orders — working on plan to overcome regulatory obstacles

Meanwhile, IT Lec told MyBroadband the substantial demand for Starlink in South Africa has forced it to temporarily pause pre-orders due to stock shortages in the countries where the kits originate.

It hopes the construction of a new Starlink production facility will see supply return to normal levels by the end of the year.

IT Lec has also received requests from people in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe who are interested in acquiring the service.

Starlink is only due to officially roll out in these countries later this year.

IT Lec is now considering registering a Starlink account in Mozambique, where the service is already officially supported.

This is intended to avoid any possible regulatory hurdles with exports from South Africa to customers in the neighbouring countries.

More of IT Lec’s Starlink kits en route for delivery to customers

IT Lec is concerned about possible intervention from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the regulatory body which enforces South Africa’s telecommunications laws.

The ISP has had talks with Icasa to try and come to an agreement over its Starlink offering, including possibly getting an individual ECS licence.

However, the regulator has since failed to respond to several follow-ups seeking guidance on the way forward.

During the one occasion Icasa officials met with the ISP, they were seemingly ill-informed on precisely how Starlink worked.

MyBroadband has asked Icasa for clarification over its official stance on IT Lec’s offering, but the regulator did not provide feedback by publication.

Some good news is that Starlink does not appear to be enforcing its stated time limit on the roaming service, which would have required users to return to the kit’s originating country every two months.

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This article was first published by MyBroadBand and is republished with permission