Starlink is awesome

Starlink can offer download speeds over 200Mbps, upload speeds greater than 15Mbps, and excellent latency to homes and businesses without any other network coverage, recent MyBroadband tests show.

Unfortunately, the South African government seems intent on obstructing this game-changing service from operating in the country.

I recently visited a secluded farm between Ventersburg and Senekal and brought our Starlink test kit, formerly supplied by Northern Cape-based Internet service provider IT-LEC.

IT-LEC was forced to transfer its customers to Mozambican ISP Starsat Africa when telecoms regulator Icasa slapped them with a cease-and-desist earlier this year.

Icasa then paid IT-LEC a visit, along with a dozen or so police officers, towards the end of September.

Nothing much came of the raid. Fortunately, the regulatory rumpus was also completely invisible to customers, and our test kit continued working without a hitch.

The network connectivity situation at the farm where I stayed was pretty typical for rural South Africa.

With the farmhouse 70km from the nearest town and over 10km from the nearest major road, cellular reception is barely good enough to make a call.

The area does have wireless Internet service providers (Wisps) that offer reasonably good uncapped services.

However, these operators are heavily constrained by the radio frequency spectrum available to them and the low power levels their signals are permitted to radiate at.

While Icasa opened up a large tranche of Wi-Fi 6E spectrum in May, this was for indoor use only.

South Africa’s wireless access provider’s association has said that making these frequencies available for outdoor use requires the creation of Automatic Frequency Coordination (AFC) databases.

Due to the physical constraints on Wi-Fi networks, Wisps are usually more expensive than fibre or Starlink for the speed you get.

For example, for slightly more than a 25Mbps Wisp service (R1,500–R1,600), you can get 10× the speed on Starlink. Gigabit-per-second fibre services are available for cheaper than both.

Starlink could be much cheaper in South Africa if it officially launched here and offered its services directly. It recently launched in Zambia for just over R700 per month.

Although prices vary by territory, Starlink is available for under R900 per month in several African countries.

It costs roughly double in South Africa because you need to pay for regional roaming to use Starlink here.

Starlink Dishy McFlatface antenna (left) and Wi-Fi router and power relay (right)

Putting Starlink through its paces

Even at the higher price, Starlink is worth the money.

Our previous testing looked at general browsing and WhatsApp calls, and compared Starlink to mobile networks and competing satellite Internet systems.

This time, we tested data-heavy and latency-sensitive applications using various gaming services as a test bed.

These included downloads through Steam, voice and video conferencing through Discord, and assessing the performance of the online game Path of Exile.

As always, setting up the “Dishy McFlatface” antenna was a breeze.

After configuring everything the first time, getting Starlink up and running requires little more than finding a suitable spot, running the cables, and plugging everything in.

Dishy is powered through the included Wi-Fi router, obviating the need to run extension cables to the antenna itself.

The Wi-Fi router was powerful enough to create a hotspot throughout the farmhouse and onto the front and back stoep.

With my smartphone connected to the Wi-Fi, I could launch the Starlink app and monitor the status of the automatic orientation.

Screenshots from the Starlink app showing Dishy McFlatface automatically orienting itself

While it takes several hours for the connection to perform optimally, I was in business with a cool 40Mbps download speed within minutes of powering up the system at around 19:45.

As the screenshots below show, by the following morning, the Starlink app reported that Dishy was partially obstructed and that I should expect a break in connectivity every 13 minutes.

This was because the antenna was placed too close to a workshop outside the main house.

Repositioning Dishy immediately improved performance, and soon we were clocking downloads of over 200Mbps.

Screenshot from the Starlink app showing partially obstructed sky (left) and unobstructed view after repositioning Dishy McFlatface (right)

Speed tests

Speed tests using Ookla’s platform automatically selected an Internet Solutions server in Nigeria as the best location to test against, recording a 92ms latency, 206Mbps download speed and 15Mbps upload speed.

Testing against MyBroadband’s Speedtest servers at NAPAfrica in South Africa showed a substantial increase in latency and decrease in speeds — 191ms ping, 156Mbps download, and 3Mbps upload.

This illustrates another drawback with Starlink not being available in South Africa directly — SpaceX has no incentive to build an Earth station here, which would dramatically improve speeds to local resources.

Ookla Speedtest of Starlink from South Africa to Nigeria
MyBroadband Speedtest of Starlink from South Africa, via Nigerian ground station, to NAPAfrica/Teraco in South Africa

YouTube

To test the impact of the latency and jitter that might be present on Starlink, I streamed several videos from YouTube ranging from full HD to 8K.

There was no buffering, stuttering, pixelation, or any other playback problem, confirming the initial indications from the speed test results that the connection could handle just about anything you throw at it — barring enormous file uploads.

Frame from full HD YouTube video, showing “stats for nerds” — South Africa’s Internet revolution/MyBroadband
Frame from 8K YouTube video Death Diving, showing “stats for nerds” — World’s Best Belly Flops (Almost)! Døds/ Devin Graham

Large downloads

Next, I downloaded a 9.2GB patch for No Man’s Sky through Steam, which finished in under ten minutes, with the download speed peaking at around 189Mbps.

After that, I installed Path of Exile, which required a 27GB download. This finished in roughly 25 minutes.

There were no interruptions, disconnections, sudden drops in speed, or any other hitches during the process.

Download of 9.2GB No Man’s Sky patch from a Steam server in South Africa over Starlink, showing peak speeds of 188.8Mbps

Voice and video conferencing

We also tested voice and video conferencing using Discord.

By default, Discord automatically selects the best location to allocate servers for a voice and video call.

In our case, it automatically assigned a South African server when connecting to a channel from the Starlink connection.

Another participant then joined the channel using the Wisp connection.

Discord’s analytics showed latency from Starlink was generally below 200ms, with occasional spikes to 300–400ms.

Crucially, there was no packet loss. It was rock solid at 0%.

Communication was seamless, except for one instance where the Wisp connection experienced a five-second lag spike.

Discord voice and video chat channel latency and packet loss statistics — Connecting to South African server over Starlink

Gaming — Path of Exile

One of the main disadvantages often cited for satellite Internet is high latency and high variation in latency (called jitter).

Latency is the time it takes for a request to be sent to a server over the Internet and receive a response.

High latency and jitter can cause severe degradation in services like voice and video calls, streaming video, and other applications like online games.

Online gaming is an excellent test for this, as you can immediately feel the effects of latency and jitter in games where reaction time matters.

Starlink’s latency from South Africa is already too high for shooter games like Counter-Strike, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Fortnite, Valorant, and PUBG.

However, it may be acceptable for games like Diablo 4, Path of Exile, and World of Warcraft.

When launching Path of Exile for the first time over Starlink, it still recommended that I use the South African server.

Its initial tests indicated that latency to its South African server was around 10% better than the European servers closest to Starlink’s ground station in Nigeria.

Once in the game, the actual server latency was generally below 200ms, and the game was more than playable.

For reference, Blizzard’s Diablo IV has no South African presence and runs at similar latencies locally, even over fibre connections. Outside of player-versus-player encounters, latencies below 200ms in such games are manageable.

Path of Exile screenshot showing performance stats over Starlink connection from South Africa, with latency at 176ms

Why Starlink hasn’t officially launched in South Africa

SpaceX has not directly said why it hasn’t launched Starlink in South Africa.

However, enterprise sales director Phillip van Essen told Mining Weekly earlier this year that they prioritise countries that make it easy for them to do business there, open local entities, and get regulatory approvals.

Icasa told MyBroadband in February 2021 that they had a brief meeting with SpaceX about the regulatory requirements to operate in South Africa, with a follow-up meeting expected “in due course.”

At that point, SpaceX was accepting preorders in South Africa, and its website said it expected to launch in 2022.

Then, on 1 April 2021, Icasa published its “Regulations in Respect of the Limitations of Control and Equity Ownership by Historically Disadvantaged Groups (HDG) and the Application of the ICT Sector Code” in the Government Gazette.

These regulations stated that South Africa’s larger network operators would soon need 30% black ownership.

It would no longer be sufficient to have 30% of ownership equity held by historically disadvantaged groups.

The operation of the regulations on black ownership was suspended until a future commencement date to be published by Icasa.

Icasa told MyBroadband that any new applications for ECS and ECNS licences would not be considered if the company does not meet the new black equity requirement.

Without these licences, you cannot operate an electronic communications service or network in South Africa.

By May 2021, Starlink added a disclaimer to its preorder page for South Africa in which it specifically mentioned regulatory approval would first have to be confirmed.

By November 2021, Starlink’s availability date in South Africa was shifted to 2023. In September 2022, the date was changed again — this time to “unknown”.

The uncertainty about South Africa’s equity ownership requirements was no doubt a factor.

A South African ISP that imported Starlink kits for customers said that, according to its information, the HDG requirement was the reason for Starlink’s delayed launch in South Africa.

IT-LEC also told MyBroadband that it had again received official confirmation from Starlink that South Africa was low on its list of prioritised countries for an official rollout.

The company explained that Starlink placed countries in one of three categories when it came to its launch schedule:

  1. Highest priority — Countries without registration/licencing requirements
  2. Medium priority — Countries requiring registration/licencing with minimal foreseen issues
  3. Lowest priority — Countries likely to have challenging registration/licencing issues

This is why Starlink has already launched in six African countries before South Africa: Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia.

Starlink is also available in Mauritius and a few other Indian Ocean island nations.

Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) legal adviser and regulatory expert Dominic Cull has little pity for Starlink not even applying for a licence to operate in South Africa.

“There is a way that Starlink can get a licence in South Africa — by getting a local partner in South Africa, of which 30% is owned by the previously disadvantaged. It’s not that hard to comply,” Cull recently told News24.

His remarks echo ISPA’s comments to MyBroadband on how Starlink could obtain network licences in South Africa.

“Those are the rules of the game, and our Vodacom, Telkom and MTN are operated like this. The 30% ownership requirement is there. Everyone must comply. Accept it,” Cull said.

In other words, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

But that doesn’t change the fact that regulatory uncertainty combined with stringent equity ownership requirements has put South Africa at the bottom of Starlink’s list.


Now read: Starlink launching “cellphone towers” in space

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Starlink is awesome