Big blow for Elon Musk’s Starlink in South Africa

South Africa’s estimated launch date for SpaceX’s high-speed, low-latency satellite Internet service Starlink has been changed from 2023 to “unknown”.

MyBroadband regularly checks the Starlink coverage map to see whether the company has made any updates to its rollout plans.

The map includes the estimated launch date for Starlink in countries around the world.

As late as August 2022, the map showed South Africa would get the service in 2023. The same message would be presented when the user attempts to place a pre-order.

But by Wednesday, 14 September 2022, we noticed Starlink had changed this to “Service date is unknown at this time”, as shown in the screenshot below.

South Africa is not the only country now presenting this message instead of the previous 2023 date.

Numerous other African and Asian countries show either “Service date is unknown at this time” or “Pending regulatory approval” instead of a set date.

Interestingly, several African countries now also show a more specific Q1 2023 launch date for the service — including Angola, Eswatini, Gabon, Kenya, and Malawi.

They will be the first African countries to get Starlink after Mozambique and Nigeria, where rollouts are set for the last quarter of 2022.

A rectangular Starlink dish used by customers to connect to the service’s low-earth orbit satellites

When SpaceX opened global pre-orders for Starlink in February 2021, it estimated the service would be available in South Africa by 2022.

Around November 2021, it shifted the availability dates for several countries and locations in the US, which also saw South Africa’s ETA pushed back to 2023.

In that instance, South African customers who had already placed their pre-orders reported the availability dates on their accounts remained 2022.

With the latest update, MyBroadband forum members who placed pre-orders said their accounts now showed “Starlink expects to expand service in your area in 2023”.

It was unclear what was behind the most recent change in availability dates.

Starlink already has more than 3,000 satellites in orbit and has rapidly expanded to countries where its coverage is available over the past few months.

After exiting beta in late 2021, it launched in 25 countries by February 2022, reached 32 by May, and was available in 40 at the time of writing.

Possible regulatory hurdles

One possibility is that SpaceX has not been able to clear the necessary regulatory hurdles to proceed with rollout plans in the countries that now have “unknown” launch dates.

The company previously said that besides having enough satellites in orbit, it would have to get regulatory approval in each country it wants to operate in.

The map changes suggest that SpaceX has made progress with regulators in countries that have been given a more specific launch date or have continued to remain at 2023, while those discussions might not have gone as well in those that now have an “unknown” ETA.

South Africa’s telecoms regulator — the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) — previously told MyBroadband it would not issue any new licences to companies that are not 30% black owned, in line with new legislation for Internet service providers (ISPs).

SpaceX requires an Individual Electronic Communications Network Service (IECNS) and Individual Electronics Communications Service (IECS) licence to offer its services in South Africa.

Furthermore, it needs a radio frequency spectrum licence to enable Starlink to communicate on spectrum bands designated for satellite broadband services.

While Icasa confirmed it had early discussions with SpaceX over the licencing requirements, the company had not yet applied for them.

Icasa’s list of licensees has not been updated since 2015, so there is no way to know whether SpaceX has applied without input from either Icasa or SpaceX.

Despite several queries since first confirming it was in discussions with SpaceX, Icasa has remained mum on any further progress.

MyBroadband asked SpaceX why it had changed the availability date for Starlink in South Africa and other countries and what the progress on its local regulatory approval was. However, we did not receive feedback by the time of publication.

Now read: Apple had talks with SpaceX over iPhone satellite features

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Big blow for Elon Musk’s Starlink in South Africa