A small Internet service provider (ISP) in the Northern Cape endured an intimidating visit by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and a cohort of police officers last week.
A source familiar with the matter told MyBroadband that four Icasa officials had pitched up at IT-Lec’s offices in Upington without notice at around noon on Thursday, 28 September 2023.
The visit came after Icasa ordered the ISP to cease and desist from importing, selling, and managing Starlink services on behalf of South Africans.
IT-Lec had previously brought Starlink kits into the country for its rural customers, who were struggling with LTE connectivity on Vodacom and MTN’s networks amid severe load-shedding.
While Starlink has not officially launched locally, its global and regional roaming features work in South Africa.
SpaceX has not disclosed 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.
The South African government has made it clear that Starlink can only launch locally if it complies with local regulations requiring 30% ownership by historically disadvantaged individuals.
According to the Internet Service Providers’ Association of South Africa, SpaceX need not sell or give up 30% of Starlink.
SpaceX would only need to establish a local subsidiary with the right HDG ownership make-up or work through a local partner that already met the requirement, it said.
Despite Starlink not officially available in South Africa, over 3,000 customers have taken up the service through IT-Lec alone.
Icasa was unhappy with this and sent IT-Lec a cease and desist letter in August 2023 demanding that the company “stop and refrain [from] acquiring, distributing, and facilitating the sale of any Starlink products in South Africa, that will in any form provide satellite access to the Starlink services”.
The unannounced visit by Icasa appeared to be to confirm whether IT-Lec had followed its instructions.
Only administrative personnel were on duty at the time of Icasa’s visit to IT-Lec.
They called one of IT-Lec’s directors, who was over 100km from the office, to inform him of the abrupt visit.
After speaking with one of the officials, the director arranged to meet with Icasa at IT Lec’s offices at 14:00.
What followed was an engagement which our source described as “intimidating” and “tense”.
At one point in the meeting, one of the Icasa officials joked about arresting the director, but one of his colleagues questioned on what grounds that could be done.
The discussions started with Icasa asking whether IT-Lec was still importing or selling Starlink kits and offering the service to its customers.
The director informed them that it no longer provided the service and had transferred customers over to a Mozambican-based ISP — Starsat Africa.
Starlink is already officially approved and supported in the country bordering the northeast of South Africa.
The director and Icasa officials also discussed the legalities surrounding the Starlink kit in South Africa.
Strangely, one of the officials talked about a phone they had purchased overseas and brought into the country, which Icasa had never type-approved.
IT-Lec’s director remarked that importing the Starlink kit was exactly the same as doing what the Icasa official had done.
Some time into the meeting, IT-Lec’s front desk staff noticed that 8–12 uniformed South African Police Service (Saps) officers had gathered in the company’s parking lot.
Although Icasa would not state the purpose of the officers’ presence, the source told MyBroadband they believed the officers were likely brought in at Icasa’s request to assist in confiscating any Starlink equipment on the premises.
During the meeting, the director made it clear that IT-Lec was not the only party that had imported the kits into South Africa.
The source said Icasa’s officials were stunned when they were told that multiple schools, police stations, game lodges, car dealerships, and even KFC branches in rural areas had acquired Starlink units.
The officials also wanted to know where the warehouses with the Starlink kits seen in several photos shared by IT-Lec were located.
The director explained that these photos were taken in customs storerooms at the border, where the Starlink kits were brought into the country.
The source told MyBroadband that the director was even asked whether the kits were being kept at the facilities of a storage company carrying the surname of one of IT-Lec’s directors.
The surname in question — Coetzee — is a very common Afrikaans surname, so Icasa’s assumption that the company had anything to do with IT-Lec was strange.
After being satisfied that IT-Lec no longer imported or resold Starlink products, the officials asked the director to provide IT-Lec’s Form M.
A Form M exempts ISPs from having their own telecoms licences to offer Internet products from licenced providers.
Because IT-Lec also resells Axxess’s LTE services, Icasa believed the company should have this document, as IT-Lec itself was not licensed.
The director explained that Axxess offered a reseller service in which it handled all this documentation on behalf of companies.
He also told Icasa that IT-Lec started offering Starlink to its customers precisely because of poor LTE services in the region.
The director pointed out that MTN network’s performance in the area was a far cry from Icasa’s required minimum standards — and that Starlink seemed like the best possible alternative.
IT-Lec previously told MyBroadband that its customers regarded Starlink as a game-changer for their connectivity needs.
Icasa then asked why the company did not report the network performance issues to the authority.
The director explained that IT-Lec did not want to “throw MTN under the bus” when it was one of IT-Lec’s few service providers.
MyBroadband asked Icasa for feedback on the purpose of its meeting and why it had brought Saps into the matter.
The authority did not provide comment by the time of publication.