Hundreds of Starlink customers in South Africa have been cut off from the satellite Internet service over alleged trademark and copyright violations.
MyBroadband first noticed complaints coming from Starlink users who use StarSat Africa to manage their accounts on Thursday, 8 February 2024.
Several users mentioned their connections were offline on Facebook groups, while others notified an unassociated Starlink kit importer of their issues. One customer said their link has been offline since Tuesday, 6 February.
Although Starlink is not officially supported in South Africa, its roaming service works in the country.
However, interested users currently cannot have the Starlink dish and router shipped directly to South Africa via Starlink itself.
The service must first be registered and the kit delivered to an address in an officially-supported country.
StarSat Africa is one of several companies that import Starlink kits on behalf of South Africans, charging R14,999 for the dish and router.
It also offers a managed Starlink service, where it handles the account registration in an officially-supported country and takes care of payments to Starlink, for R1,299 per month.
After asking StarSat Africa whether it was aware of customers having issues with their connection, the company said that Starlink had locked the accounts of 350–400 of its customers.
The company also took issue with the use of its trademarked brand name and photos of Starlink equipment in marketing by resellers.
“SpaceX must protect itself and its valued consumers from fraud, theft, and any confusion as to the source or affiliation of its goods and services,” the notice provided to MyBroadband by StarSat Africa stated.
“Therefore, in accordance with the Terms of Service, SpaceX is immediately terminating your agreement and suspending your account(s).”
SpaceX further insisted that StarSat Africa immediately cease all unauthorised resales of Starlink services and cease all use of the Starlink mark in connection with marketing its services or any similar actions that further cause confusion between SpaceX and StarSat Africa.
“Starlink reserves the right to proceed in other ways to enforce SpaceX’s contract rights and valuable intellectual property rights.”
StarSat Africa said it was engaging with SpaceX to get the accounts reinstated but warned that the ticket support system it had to work through to facilitate this typically had a 24-hour turnaround time.
StarSat Africa’s reselling application rejected
The action comes shortly after StarSat Africa told MyBroadband that SpaceX had rejected its application to become an authorised Starlink reseller.
The company said it was migrating all customers to manage their own accounts, as it was not allowed to offer its managed service until its application had been reconsidered.
Once migrated, customers are able to log into their associated Starlink accounts and manage their subscriptions themselves. It was unclear whether the accounts could still be migrated while in a locked status.
Although Starlink does sell its residential kits through third-party stores, the Terms of Service state that the subscription itself must always be paid directly to Starlink.
This direct-to-customer model is one of the major issues with Starlink’s launch in South Africa.
To stick with this strategy in South Africa, Starlink requires several licences from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).
Under the Electronic Communications Act, applying for these licences requires a company to be 30% owned by historically disadvantaged groups, something which is unlikely to be the case for SpaceX, which has a highly complex private ownership structure.
In addition, Icasa is currently not issuing new electronic communications network service or electronic communications service licences.
That means Starlink would need to acquire one of these licences from an existing holder.
The Internet Service Providers Assocation of South Africa (Ispa) previously told MyBroadband that such transfers could cost around R1 million and take several months.
Vox has told MyBroadband that Starlink was unwilling to partner with local Internet service providers (ISPs) that already hold these licences to roll out locally.
The resellers that are authorised to offer Starlink services — including Paratus Group — may only sell its business kits and packages.
Once it has a network and service licence, Starlink must also acquire a spectrum licence for the bandwidth it uses for its satellite communication.