Fantastic satellite Internet in South Africa — but only for big business

While low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite services are still not officially supported for personal use in South Africa, multiple companies are already selling the next-generation satellite connectivity to corporates and large businesses.

LEO services offer significantly faster speeds and lower latency than conventional geosynchronous (GEO) services because the satellite constellations LEO services use orbit much closer to Earth than GEO satellites.

The latter operate at altitudes over 35,000km, covering a larger area and ensuring users only have to aim their antennas at a single spot in the sky.

However, the substantial distance limits download bandwidth, typically maxing out at 50Mbps on top-end packages and resulting in high connection latencies of over 600ms.

Additionally, these services typically carry a high price tag.

For example, an entry-level uncapped satellite service on Morclick in South Africa features download speeds of just 10Mbps and 3Mbps uploads for R999 per month on a long-term contract, excluding installation.

Its fair usage policy is also strict, with downloads throttled to 3Mbps after the first 150GB consumption, 2Mbps after 250GB, and 512kbps after 400GB.

Morclick satellite Internet dish on a farm in Limpopo

The most well-known LEO operator and the biggest disruptor in satellite Internet communications in decades is SpaceX’s Starlink.

Its fleet of over 6,000 satellites, all launched with its own rockets, is orbiting at an altitude of around 550km.

Starlink’s network offers many residential users download speeds over 100Mbps and upload speeds of around 5Mbps to 20Mbps.

However, it has not yet applied for the necessary telecoms and spectrum licences in South Africa and is deemed illegal by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.

Despite this status, numerous households and small businesses are taking chances with the law with Starlink’s roaming service.

Some have even switched from fixed-LTE connections to Starlink due to the former’s weak performance during load-shedding.

Starlink dish in a rural community in South Africa

Catering to enterprises and corporations

Another major LEO player is Eutelsat’s OneWeb, which has a smaller cohort of 648 satellites orbiting 1,200km above the Earth.

While the increased distance between Earth and OneWeb’s satellites results in additional latency, it can cover a larger area with each satellite.

While Starlink manages latencies of 25ms to 60ms in areas with ground stations, OneWeb still offers a highly respectable sub-100ms.

Liquid, Q-KON Africa, and Paratus have all secured distribution agreements with Eutelsat OneWeb.

Q-KON installed the first OneWeb system for a digital bank in South Africa in early 2024. The service is incorporated into Q-KON’s Twoobii satellite offering.

While OneWeb offers superior performance to older GEO services, it is available exclusively to businesses.

According to Vox Wireless’ Theo van Zyl, OneWeb’s 100/20Mbps uncapped package with a fair use policy of 500GB costs roughly R30,000 per month.

A Starlink Business package in Eswatini starts at just R2,185 for 1TB of priority data speeds per month and goes up to R12,650 for 6TB of priority data.

However, OneWeb is an enterprise-grade product with certain service-level agreements (SLAs) guaranteeing uptime and performance.

OneWeb dishes being installed for leading digital bank in South Africa

Redundant connectivity is often cited as one of the other major reasons corporations and enterprises might consider a satellite connection like OneWeb.

However, OneWeb has a rather prominent Achilles Heel in this regard.

The service relies on local ground infrastructure for data transfers, as none of its first-generation satellites feature inter-satellite links like Starlink.

These Starlink modules use lasers to relay data from one satellite to the next, enabling communication across vast distances before requiring a link to a ground station.

With this capability, Starlink can bypass undersea cable breaks, which have disrupted Internet connectivity in South Africa in recent months.

Amazon enters the fray

The first LEO service that could become available for personal use in South Africa may be Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which has partnered with Vodacom to provide 4G and 5G connectivity in remote areas.

The company’s satellites also operate at around 600km above the Earth. Amazon is planning for Project Kuiper to support up to 400Mbps download speeds by full deployment in 2029.

The company only launched two prototype satellites in October 2023 and expects to start offering its service to the first customers by the end of 2024.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper’s satellites will support inter-satellite links, allowing for connectivity in areas without ground stations.

Render of Project Kuiper consumer dish

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Fantastic satellite Internet in South Africa — but only for big business