Hundreds of Starlink dishes become expensive paperweights in South Africa

SpaceX is refusing to restore Internet access to numerous of its expensive dishes that it blocked in South Africa for being used by customers who had bought their equipment and taken up roaming plans through an unauthorised reseller.

In addition, the reseller — Starsat Africa — has advised customers that it cannot replace their bricked dishes used to connect to the satellite Internet service without an additional cost.

Instead, it is offering that they buy a discounted unblocked dish for R5,999, not including import tax and shipping. This puts the total price of the replacement kit at around R8,000.

In addition to the original price of R14,999 for their first kit, they would have to spend around R23,000 for functional equipment, not including the subscription cost.

Starsat Africa and several of the impacted customers have contacted Starlink’s support channels to try and get the kits unblocked so that they can be migrated to the customers’ own names.

This way, they hope to resolve Starlink’s issue with the accounts not being controlled by the customers themselves.

Starlink does not permit the resale of its residential services by any third party, all subscriptions are supposed to be held directly with the company.

However, Starsat Africa and the customers have been told that their kits are ineligible for transfer.

“Our records indicate that this kit is associated to an account that [is] suspended due to being an unauthorised reseller,” one response to an impacted user on Starlink’s ticketing system stated.

“We are unable to activate the service for a Starlink that has been purchased from an unauthorised retailer or reseller.”

“Buying Starlink through an unauthorised third party that is not listed on our website or directly through SpaceX is a violation of our terms and conditions and subject to immediate suspension of service and potentially other ramifications.”

Despite repeated attempts to explain that he was not aware Starsat Africa was not authorised to resell Starlink, multiple support agents were steadfast. They repeatedly said the dish would not be unblocked.

The customer also asked one agent whether he could return the dish to Starlink for refurbishment and get a discount on a new unit registered in his own name, but he had not received a response by the time of publication.

Starlink kit being tested in the Kruger National Park.

MyBroadband first learnt that Starlink had cut off many of Starsat Africa’s customers in early February 2024 after spotting complaints on several Facebook groups for Starlink users in South Africa.

The company told us the issue only affected 10% of its Starlink client base, which it said worked out to 350-400 customers. That would imply it had between 3,500 and 4,000 Starlink users.

We found this number curious, as Starsat Africa previously told MyBroadband it had over 12,000 Starlink customers, a number which some of Starsat’s rivals have called into question.

Starsat Africa has maintained the blocking was caused by other parties reselling kits it had sold to them, and that these parties had violated the terms of service by using Starlink’s official trademarks and branding.

It maintained that it was on a “pre-approval” list which allowed it to import the kits and denied that it was the company Starlink blamed for reselling the service without authorisation from SpaceX.

It said the innocent customers who were affected by the issue were on the same primary accounts as those who had resold the kits after buying from Starlink.

A rival Starlink importer and legal expert argued that it was more likely Starsat Africa itself was the reseller that had infringed on Starlink’s terms of service.

Starsat Africa has been reselling a managed Starlink service for R1,299 a month, around R300 to R500 more expensive than when a user pays Starlink directly for a regional roaming subscription in one of the African countries where the service is officially available.

The competitor also said while Starlink had initially opened a pre-approval list when it had an estimated launch date in South Africa, this was scrapped after the rollout plans were hampered by South Africa’s stringent ownership rules for telecoms licensees.

MyBroadband asked for the original communication sent to Starsat Africa by Starlink explaining the reasoning for the abrupt termination of services, but it could not provide this.

Only days before customers first reported the disconnections, Starsat had also told MyBroadband that SpaceX had denied its application to become a Starlink reseller and that it would migrate all customers to manage their own accounts.

Previous company served with Starlink cease-and-desist

Starlink previously also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Starsat’s predecessor IT Lec, a Northern Cape-based ISP. IT Lec said it transferred its customers to Starsat Africa in August 2023.

In that letter, SpaceX had sent a warning that it would cut off customers within 30 days if they were not migrated to their own accounts.

IT Lec told MyBroadband it had transferred customers to Starsat Africa after the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) had also served it with a cease-and-desist letter to stop selling Starlink kits and services.

Icasa’s justification was different, however. It took issue with Starlink operating in South Africa without the required telecoms or spectrum licences.

IT Lec said because Starsat Africa was based in Mozambique, where Starlink was already approved, it would help avoid potential legal hurdles with Icasa and disruption to their services.

Icasa has warned that it deems the use of Starlink illegal and implied that the Starlink dish was not type-approved for use in South Africa.

Starlink’s illegal status in South Africa has also made those importing the kits — through Starsat Africa or otherwise— hesitant to use their real names or go on the record.

One of the members of the Starlink-linked Facebook groups suggested there were links between the people running IT Lec and Starsat Africa.

They noticed that the FNB bank account on Starsat Africa’s invoices belonged to a person with the same initials and surname as someone listed as a director at IT Lec on LinkedIn.

The LinkedIn page was deleted within a few hours of that customer’s highlighting the link in a post on Facebook. Google Search continued to show a result for the profile at the time of publication.

MyBroadband asked Starsat Africa for clarity on this issue but had not received feedback by publication.

Starlink roaming still working for many in South Africa

It should be emphasised that not all Starlink roaming users in South Africa have been cut off from the service.

As it stands, it appears only a portion of users who bought their kits and signed up for a managed service through Starsat Africa got their dishes blocked.

The kits themselves may only be sold by SpaceX itself via the Starlink website or authorised resellers and retailers.

It is only the subscriptions for business plans that can be managed by authorised third-party distributors, none of which have yet been approved for South Africa.

Starlink is not yet available to order directly from SpaceX in South Africa.

However, if a user could get a kit registered and delivered to an address in a supported country, import it into South Africa, and activate the roaming service, all on their own name with their personal details, it appears that Starlink will not block their accounts.

Another popular importer of Starlink kits — IcasaSePush – told MyBroadband that none of its customers have had their accounts blocked to date.

It only offers an importing and sign-up service at a once-off fee of R3,499 and orders directly from SpaceX.

During this process, it uses the customer’s own personal details to ensure they have full access to their account, as well as a dedicated separate payment method so that Starlink would not be able to link its customers with the same account.

However, it should be emphasised that, given Starlink’s current status in South Africa, there is a risk involved in using the kits without proper Icasa approval, including the potential confiscation of end-users’ equipment and big fines for resellers.

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Hundreds of Starlink dishes become expensive paperweights in South Africa