SpaceX and ICASA begin discussions over Starlink in South Africa

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has confirmed to MyBroadband that it is in discussions with SpaceX regarding its satellite-based Starlink Internet service.

SpaceX this week opened pre-orders for its fast, low-latency satellite broadband service across the world, including in South Africa.

Those interested in signing up can put down a deposit of $99 to be prioritised when Starlink goes live in the country in 2022, putting them first in line to get the hardware required to connect to the Starlink network.

Many MyBroadband readers asked whether the company would require regulatory approval from ICASA before it can start operating in South Africa.

ICASA told MyBroadband that SpaceX will need to acquire an Individual Electronic Communications Network Service (I-ECNS) and Individual Electronics Communications Service license to provide its satellite-based broadband Internet locally.

Although it has not yet applied for these licences, it has spoken to ICASA on the matter.

“ICASA had a brief meeting with SpaceX about the regulatory requirements last week. A further meeting will be held in due course on the same matter,” the Authority stated.

Starlink’s frequency spectrum

SpaceX will have to receive approval for using certain radio frequency spectrum to transmit signals that provide Internet communication over its network.

There are already several satellite-based Internet services in South Africa which currently occupy the 4-8GHz and 12-18 GHz bands to provide broadband connectivity.

According to regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US, Starlink uses frequency spectrum in the 12–18 GHz, 26.5–40 GHz, and 40–75 GHz bands.

Elonx.net’s Starlink Compendium provided a breakdown, of the exact spectrum chunks used in the specific parts of the service:

  • Transmissions from satellite to user terminals: 10.7-12.7 GHz and 37.5-42.5 GHz
  • Satellite to gateway transmissions: 17.8-18.6 GHz and 18.8-19.3 GHz and 37.5-42.5 GHz
  • Transmissions from terminals to satellites: 14.0-14.5 GHz and 47.2-50.2 GHz and 50.4-51.4 GHz
  • Transmissions from gateways to satellites: 27.5-29.1 GHz and 29.5 – 30.0 GHz and 47.2-50.2 GHz and 50.4-51.4 GHz
  • Tracking, telemetry and control (downlink): 12.15-12.25 GHz and 18.55-18.60 GHz and 37.5-37.75 GHz
  • Tracking, telemetry and control (uplink): 13.85-14.00 GHz and 47.2-47.45 GHz

It should be noted that none of these bands fall within the high-demand spectrum that is due to go on auction to mobile operators by the end of March 2021.

Interference with SKA

A possible hurdle for SpaceX to overcome in its application for regulatory approval will be the concerns raised by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation.

The SKA radio telescope in the Northern Cape is used for highly-advanced astronomical observation that requires minimal interference from radio signals.

This is why it is built within a legally-protected Radio Quiet Zone in the 10.6-10.7GHz band that protects it from ground-generated radio signals such as cellphones or Wi-Fi.

Unfortunately, the Radio Quiet Zone does not hold jurisdiction over tens of thousands of small satellites rapidly orbiting and beaming signals back to Earth, and radio transmissions from satellite constellations use a frequency range which is immediately adjacent to this radio band.

Despite this, radio telescopes have been able to conduct observations in all these frequency ranges due to the small number of visible satellites and their mostly geostationary orbit.

However, since Starlink uses thousands of moving satellites in low-earth orbit, astronomers will be facing a much larger number of fast-moving radio sources in the sky.

In its analysis, the organisation said that strong interfering signals can “saturate” the receiver signals and drown out all other signals seen by the SKA’s receivers.

This saturation is predicted to occur for a small percentage of the operation time for the initial phase of the Starlink constellation deployment (around 6,400 satellites), provided the satellites do not reflect light directly onto the SKA dishes.

Now read: Elon Musk’s Starlink in South Africa – How it compares with fibre and 5G

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SpaceX and ICASA begin discussions over Starlink in South Africa