SA Moves To Shut Starlink ‘Backdoor’ Used By Locals Amid License Deadlock
South Africa’s telecommunications regulatory body, the Independent Communications Regulator of South Africa (Icasa), has issued a firm directive to a local Internet service provider, IT Lec. The instruction calls for IT Lec to immediately halt the import of Starlink kits on behalf of its customers and to disconnect them from the satellite broadband service provided by Starlink. This development emerged after IT Lec received an official letter from Icasa on August 14, 2023, laying out these demands.
The core of Icasa’s demand is that IT Lec must cease all activities related to acquiring, distributing, and facilitating the sale of any Starlink products within the borders of South Africa. This includes any products or services that would allow customers in the country to gain satellite access to Starlink’s broadband network. The regulatory body’s stance implies that IT Lec should cease its practice of purchasing Starlink kits from countries where the service is already operational and should cut off all Starlink-related services to its South African customers starting from August 17, 2023.
The backstory, Mybroadband reports, is that discussions had taken place between IT Lec and Icasa several weeks prior to the regulatory directive. These discussions were centred around clarifying the nature of the Starlink service and its legality within South Africa.
IT Lec had been acting as an intermediary for its customers, importing Starlink kits and managing their Starlink accounts. The company offered a Starlink kit at a cost of ZAR 15 K coupled with a monthly service fee of ZAR 1,799.00. Local news outlets have reported that due to an overwhelming surge in demand, IT Lec was forced to temporarily suspend the acceptance of new orders about two weeks prior to the Icasa directive.
One of the critical points of contention is Starlink’s lack of a license to operate its services in South Africa. Unlike some other regions, customers in South Africa cannot directly order Starlink kits from the company’s website. Nonetheless, due to the optional regional and international roaming features of Starlink, the service has been functioning within South Africa.
The delay in Starlink’s availability in South Africa can be attributed to an impasse stemming from regulatory requirements in the Electronics Communications Act. This legislation dictates that historically disadvantaged groups (HDGs) must hold a minimum of 30 percent ownership in a company before it can obtain the necessary telecommunications licenses to offer broadband services locally. These HDGs encompass categories such as black individuals, youth, women, and people with disabilities.
Despite the legal implications, IT Lec’s customers have found Starlink to be a game-changer, especially in remote and underserved rural areas. IT Lec had managed to amass over 2,600 sign-ups before temporarily halting new orders due to the high demand.
In response to Icasa’s directive, IT Lec has formulated a strategy to prevent abrupt disconnection of its customers. The company plans to migrate its customers to a separate entity registered in Mozambique. From this base, IT Lec intends to continue distributing Starlink kits to other African countries where the service has not yet been made available.
Icasa has refrained from commenting on its directive to IT Lec and its official stance regarding Starlink. This situation adds a layer of uncertainty to the future of Starlink’s presence in South Africa and the potential regulatory challenges it may face in its global expansion efforts.