Starlink’s arrival in South Africa is just the beginning of satellite Internet boom

The hype around SpaceX’s Starlink is signalling the beginning of a period of significant growth for several low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite Internet providers coming to South Africa.

That is according to Q-KON Africa Group CEO and chief engineer at the Twoobii satellite broadband service, Dawie De Wet.

MyBroadband recently contacted the company and several other incumbent satellite broadband service providers to hear their thoughts on Starlink being useable locally despite not having officially launched in the country.

Although Starlink has not officially rolled out in South Africa, and a kit cannot be shipped directly to our shores, the service can be accessed through a global roaming feature launched earlier this year.

Unlike other Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa, Starlink does not yet have the necessary communications or spectrum licences from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

However, De Wet told MyBroadband his company did not take issue with Starlink becoming accessible locally, even without the required licencing.

“Starlink operates a global constellation that will be available in all territories unless the services are specifically muted or barred in a designated area according to Starlink’s business policies,” De Wet said.

“The service will be available over the South African region, unless prohibited by the Starlink operational directives.”

“This is similar to all other past, current and future services delivered by satellite constellations.”

Dawie De Wet, Q-KON Africa chief executive officer and Twoobii chief engineer

De Wet said there were no concerns regarding the spectrum in which Starlink was operating either.

That was allocated to the company by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in compliance with international coordination requirements.

“Frequency and service coordination between satellite operators is an ongoing effort and is resolved through the different working groups and service coordination teams,” said De Wet.

“All coordination aspects and any possible frequency interference are mitigated on an international level between the respective operators and is very seldom dealt with on a national or regional forum.”

For these reasons, De Wet said Q-KON did not believe there was any legitimate reason to file complaints against SpaceX and Starlink over its availability in South Africa.

But he warned that Starlink could face some financial regulatory hurdles in the near future because the roaming service is paid for in foreign currency.

“There are actually many more principal aspects such as payment regulations, tax, and corporate compliance regulations that need to be considered,” De Wet explained.

“When Starlink scales to thousands of terminals, then the forex outflow [for Starlink equipment and monthly fees] would certainly need to be done through official channels.”

MyBroadband recently got our first hands-on experience with Starlink.

De Wet said Q-KON welcomed the awareness Starlink has created around the possibilities for satellite Internet.

He described Starlink as a “most promising” service, particularly in light of South Africa’s current power crisis.

“Right now, South Africa can benefit from any service not affected by load-shedding,” De Wet said.

One local ISP that has started importing and distributing Starlink kits on behalf of its customers recently told MyBroadband the service was a game-changer for those in rural areas where cellular towers had limited or no backup.

However, while the public’s attention has been keenly focused on Starlink, it will not be the only service of its kind within the next two to three years.

“Other international LEO providers are also mapping their go-to-market models for South Africa,” De Wet stated.

“These services could even supersede Starlink’s speed, data, and cost performances for the end-users.”

“All while these LEO operators plan to operate in coordination and alignment with the local regulators.”

Starlink’s incoming rivals

One of the major Starlink rivals coming to South Africa is the UK-based OneWeb, for which Q-KON has been appointed as a distributor.

Another is Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for which the ecommerce and cloud services giant has recently started advertising a position in South Africa focused on regulatory matters.

Q-KON’s primary positioning as a service provider for businesses means it has a different service proposition than Starlink.

“We offer business satellite broadband for corporates, the financial sector, production and mining, as well as point-of-sale transactions over satellite for the retail, tourism, and hospitality sectors in Southern Africa,” said De Wet.

Although it also sells packages to businesses, Starlink is heavily focused on its offerings for individuals.

Two companies that do offer Internet packages in South Africa aimed at individuals — Paratus and MorClick — did not respond to MyBroadband’s queries by the time of publication.

Starlink is likely to pose a threat to these operators, as their geostationary services offer lower speeds, higher ping, and come with much stricter fair usage policies (FUPs).

However, the satellite networks on which they operate also have plans to launch LEO constellations or are invested in existing LEO operators.

But Starlink’s potential rivals have an uphill battle ahead of them.

The company already has 1.5 million customers connecting to over 4,000 satellites in orbit, all of which were transported on its parent company’s own rockets.

It has been granted approval to increase its constellation to 12,000 satellites.

OneWeb has also reached global coverage, but its planned fleet of 648 satellites is only expected to start providing connectivity by the end of the year.

In addition, these satellites orbit around 1,200km above Earth, instead of the 550km of Starlink, so they won’t be able to deliver as low a latency as the latter.

Starlink expects its network’s latency will gradually improve to around 25ms, while OneWeb anticipates it will deliver between 50-70ms.

The latter would still be suitable for low-ping applications like gaming and video conferencing.

Amazon is yet to launch a single satellite for Project Kuiper.

The table below compares the progress of Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kuiper.

LEO satellite service comparison
Satellite service Amazon Project Kuiper  OneWeb SpaceX Starlink
Initial or targeted launch date 2024 (first countries) End of 2023 (global) November 2021 (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and parts of Europe)
Global coverage 2029 March 2023 February 2023
Customers n/a Unknown 1.5 million
Current satellites in orbit 0 618 4,000+
Approved satellite number 3,236 648 12,000
Planned final constellation size 3,236 <1,000 42,000

Now read: This ISP sells Starlink in South Africa — here is how much it costs

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Starlink’s arrival in South Africa is just the beginning of satellite Internet boom