South African Mobile giants are embracing Starlink and other satellite networks

South Africa’s major mobile networks, including Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C, perceive satellite communication as a complementary service, not a threat. Traditional concerns over satellite costs persist, but new low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks like SpaceX’s Starlink promise affordable, uncapped connectivity. Despite potential rural advantages, challenges include indoor coverage limitations and capacity issues. While some operators collaborate with satellite providers for extended coverage, others explore solutions independently. Overall, satellite services are seen as beneficial, particularly during disasters or where conventional networks face challenges.

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Why Vodacom and MTN do not fear Starlink and other satellite networks — for now

By Hanno Labuschagne

South Africa’s four biggest mobile networks regard satellite communication as a complementary service rather than a threat to their businesses.

Satellites have been used for broadcasting, voice calls, texting, and Internet services for decades.

However, on the consumer end, satellite calling and texting have been used sparingly for emergency scenarios due to their substantial operational cost.

Older satellite Internet services, such as those provided by Viasat, use geosynchronous satellites that orbit around 37,000km above Earth, resulting in limited speed and high latency.

They are also generally very expensive, even for speeds around 5–10Mbps, and come with stringent fair usage policies (FUPs) limiting even further on uncapped packages.

Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks like SpaceX’s Starlink, Eutelsat’s OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper aim to change this with more affordable, uncapped products.

These services can provide high-speed and uncapped Internet service in areas where land-based mobile networks have not rolled out cell towers.

In addition to broadband connectivity, newer LEO satellites have advanced equipment to support voice and SMS communication with conventional phones.

With the deep pockets of companies like SpaceX and Amazon, it is easy to see why industry experts have warned that traditional mobile networks could be disintermediated.

However, although satellite networks could capture large swathes of customers in rural areas, they might struggle to compete with conventional cellular operators in more populated areas.

Firstly, current LEO satellites cannot provide indoor coverage directly to phones.

You could use one of these services inside a building by connecting to a Wi-Fi router linked to an external antenna (or an indoor 4G or 5G micro- or nanocell). However, this increases the overall cost and ease of connectivity.

Many people won’t spend tens of thousands of rand on the required antenna or likely hundreds of rands on the subscription if they can get a fixed-LTE or fixed-5G service with a much more affordable router and cheaper monthly fee.

Another potential challenge is capacity.

The biggest operator currently available — Starlink  — has already introduced a FUP that divides potential data speeds between “Priority” and “Standard” to manage its network effectively.

This shows that the service has limited bandwidth despite already having over 5,400 satellites.

With more base stations covering smaller sections of the population, mobile networks have a technological and operational advantage in cities and large towns.

Technician working on Rain radio equipment on a cellular tower

Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C have told MyBroadband that they don’t regard LEO satellite networks as a threat.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told MyBroadband that the operator viewed satellite services as essential to increasing connectivity in underserved areas.

“Key to our ambition to connect the next 100 million lives across our markets are satellite partnerships,” Kennedy said.

” We believe that satellite connectivity projects have the potential to enhance our rural connectivity plans as well as improve the stability and speed of Internet services in urban areas.”

Vodacom is already involved in partnerships aiming to achieve this.

Firstly, the operator is working with its parent company Vodafone and AST SpaceMobile to develop the first space-based mobile network to connect directly to consumer 4G and 5G smartphones without specialised hardware.

Kennedy would not divulge details on official launch dates for the services but said a successful trial was completed earlier in 2023.

Vodacom has also partnered with Amazon to leverage the high-bandwidth, low-latency performance of Project Kuiper to offer 4G/5G-like connectivity to areas that may otherwise be challenging and prohibitively expensive to serve via traditional fibre or microwave solutions.

Amazon launched its first two Project Kuiper satellites on an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance in October 2023.

MTN announced last week that it is discussing partnerships with several LEO satellite services — including Starlink.

“Partnering with satellite network providers makes sense for MTN as this can assist mobile operators to provide connectivity to areas quicker during disaster periods or even when previous site build business cases could not be justified,” said MTN South Africa chief of sustainability and corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan highlighted the challenges of satellite communication, including user devices being much further away from transmitter hardware, resulting in higher latencies.

The lowest advertised latency of any LEO provider is Starlink’s 20–40ms, which is only feasible in regions where it has ground stations.

The lower end of that number is similar to 4G in populated areas but slower than 5G, which has repeatedly been shown to achieve sub-10ms latencies.

Nevertheless, the operator regards satellite communications as a complementary means of reaching unconnected businesses and populations.

MTN said satellites were particularly pragmatic for use during natural disasters and load-shedding.

Starlink kits previously imported by Northern Cape-based ISP IT Lec for customers struggling to get mobile broadband connectivity during load-shedding

South Africa’s third-biggest network — Telkom — said it also does not view satellite services as a threat but welcomed any technology that helped democratise broadband access.

Its view was similar to Vodacom and MTN’s in that it regards satellite as a tool to augment its own services.

However, the operator is not yet in any discussions with LEO satellite networks about enabling satellite-to-phone communication for its customers.

Cell C told MyBroadband it was in discussions with an LEO satellite-to-mobile provider to start testing its service on Cell C’s network in 2024.

“Cell C recognises the opportunity to leverage satellite services for extended coverage in areas where tower rollouts are challenging,” the operator said.

“Ongoing discussions with satellite network providers are in progress, and timelines for any developments will be announced accordingly.”

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This article was first published on MyBroadband and is republished with permission.