SpaceX recently launched a new coverage map for its Starlink satellite Internet service, which suggests it might exclude a large part of South Africa from its rollout plans.
The map divides areas across the globe where Starlink will be active or is already live into three main categories — Available, Waitlist, and Coming Soon.
Hovering over South Africa shows that Starlink is coming to most of the country in 2023.
However, an update to the map has inserted a large jagged dark blue ring that encircles most of the Northern Cape, around half of the Western Cape, and a section of the Eastern Cape.
Searching for an address within the circle to place a Starlink pre-order will still give prospective customers an estimated availability date of 2023 — the same as the rest of the country.
However, an eagle-eyed MyBroadband forum member found that when moving your mouse cursor over the map, the estimated availability date disappears when it enters the circular area.
Cities and towns that fall within the ring include Upington, Ladismith, Beaufort West, and De Aar.
The images below show where the ring is located on the new Starlink map. It is circled in red to highlight it.
The “dead zone” covers a sparsely populated area with many small towns and rural communities that are unlikely to get fibre connectivity soon.
For some of these communities, cellular and satellite Internet are their only broadband options. On farms outside towns, even mobile networks may no longer be an option.
The likely explanation for the circle is what is being built near its centre — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), located in the Meerkat National Park near the small town of Carnavaron.
The ring’s jagged lines are possibly due to the sector-based operations of Starlink’s satellites.
The SKA is highly regarded in the scientific community for its potential to look into the deep reaches of space.
Once completed, the SKA will comprise thousands of dishes fitted with low-frequency antennas installed over large sections of land in South Africa and Australia and several other sites across the globe.
Combined, these will serve as the world’s largest radio telescope.
For proper observation, the SKA requires minimal interference from other radio signals.
But the astronomy community is greatly concerned about the potential impact that Starlink will have on SKA’s operations.
According to an impact analysis by the SKA Organisation (SKAO), it would be almost impossible for the telescope to remain unimpacted by the Starlink fleet.
Starlink satellites use some of the same radiofrequency spectrum band to transmit data signals as the SKA, as shown in the infographic below.
While the SKA is being built in a legally-protected Radio Quiet Zone, it holds no jurisdiction over Starlink’s Internet beaming satellites orbiting hundreds of kilometres above Earth’s surface.
That means that Starlink could periodically blind the SKA.
The SKAO said that would result in all data in the frequency band being lost, rendering its receivers useless for a portion of the time.
The apparent Starlink “dead zone” around the SKA is not the only one on the Starlink Map.
There are several more such rings in other areas across the globe with critical astronomical installations.
The second site of the SKA located in Australia near Murchison also has a ring around it, albeit much smaller.
The same goes for several other locations with important astronomical installations, including the Atacama Large Millimetre Array Science Preserve in the north of Chile and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in the US.
At the time of publication, it could not be confirmed whether Starlink planned to exclude these areas from its service.
SpaceX has not responded to queries from MyBroadband over the rings on its map and what they mean.
MyBroadband asked the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) for comment on the “dead zone”.
Sarao deputy managing director, Dr Adrian Tiplady, said that it was currently assessing the most appropriate technical and regulatory measures for further discussion with SpaceX to allow for the co-existence of Starlink and the SKA.
The organisation has proposed that Starlink program its satellites to point away from the SKA to limit interference.