Starlink blocking service in Zimbabwe — spells trouble for South African users

SpaceX’s broadband satellite Internet service Starlink has warned users in Zimbabwe that it will disable their roaming services upon request from the country’s communications regulator.

Like South Africa, Zimbabwe does not yet officially support Starlink, but many people in the country are using its regional or global roaming service on kits bought in countries like Mozambique, Rwanda, Zambia, and Kenya.

A MyBroadband reader with several active kits in Zimbabwe shared an email with us from Starlink, which they received on 12 April 2024.

The notification explained that Zimbabwe was considered an “unauthorised territory” for Starlink services.

“As a result, Starlink has been directed by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) to disable your service,” the email stated.

“We will continue to work with Potraz to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals to turn on Starlink services in Zimbabwe as soon as possible.”

Starlink said its Terms of Service does not guarantee when or where its Mobile or Mobile Priority Services plans will be available. Its roaming service is considered to be a mobile option.

“Use of such services is dependent on many factors, including obtaining or maintaining the necessary regulatory approvals which are subject to change,” Starlink said.

Starlink said users had the option to pause their service.

Starlink also encouraged users to contact Potraz via [email protected] or +263 242 333032 to communicate support for Starlink to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals in Zimbabwe.

“As soon as we receive regulatory approvals to turn on Starlink services in Zimbabwe, we will let you know,” the company said.

Below is the full email sent to Starlink roaming users in Zimbabwe.

Starlink likely does not want to jeopardise its ongoing approval process with Potraz, since its coverage map shows a clear intention to launch in Zimbabwe in the third quarter of 2024.

The action comes after Potraz warned those using the service that it was illegal and that police would carry out raids on premises suspected to be using the terminals.

At the time of its warning, it had supposedly already arrested two people.

In response, some Starlink users disguised their kits as solar panels or built them into the back of streetlights to avoid detection.

Zimbabwe is at least the second African country where Starlink has cut off roaming services after a request from the government.

Last month, Starlink did the same in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a near-identical notification sent to customers in the country.

Starlink’s coverage map shows it plans to launch in the DRC in 2025.

Numerous other African countries — including Botswana have banned advertising of the service, with their regulators warning that it is not authorised to operate locally.

South African roaming disabling on the cards?

Potraz’s role in Zimbabwe is similar to that of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

In November 2023, it also gazetted a notice stating that Starlink’s use in South Africa is illegal because the company had not yet secured the necessary telecoms or radio frequency spectrum licences to offer its services locally.

It warned that anyone who provided a service without a licence or without registering as required was guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to R5 million or 10% of annual turnover — whichever is greater.

Icasa also pointed out that Starlink equipment needed to be type-approved for use in South Africa and that the Starlink router was the only customer equipment that had received the green light for use.

“Non-type-approved equipment poses a risk of causing harmful interference to the radio frequency spectrum,” Icasa said.

“It further causes a lack of dissonance among devices operating in the same environment resulting in equipment not being functional.”

“Furthermore, equipment which is not type-approved could potentially explode or implode thus putting consumers in harm’s way.”

There have been no confirmed reports of Icasa or South African Police Services (Saps) raiding premises with Starlink kits or slapping businesses or individuals with fines for using the service.

Nevertheless, the fact that regulators in the DRC and Zimbabwe were able to request that Starlink disable the roaming service suggests Icasa could do the same for South Africa.

Starlink’s coverage map still shows South Africa has no estimated service availability date, so the company might not be actively engaging with our communications regulator like in the countries where it has a clear intent to launch and would not want to put its approval applications at risk.

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Starlink blocking service in Zimbabwe — spells trouble for South African users