Zimbabwe approves Starlink — But South Africa remains in the dark

The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) has approved Starlink’s licensing in the country.

The country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced this development in a post on X on Saturday.

“The entry by Starlink in the digital telecommunications space in Zimbabwe is expected to result in the deployment of high speed, low cost, LEO internet infrastructure throughout Zimbabwe and particularly in all the rural areas,” said Mnangagwa.

“The investment confidence expressed by Starlink in Zimbabwe’s telecommunications infrastructure also dovetails with the 2nd Republic’s mantra, “Zimbabwe is open for business”.”

“I encourage more investment by foreign conglomerates in Zimbabwe as we are an investment destination of choice.”

Mnangagwa said Starlink services will delivered through a single, exclusive local partner — IMC Communications.

“I take this opportunity, on behalf of the Government of Zimbabwe, to congratulate IMC Communications (Pvt) Ltd and Starlink on this commendable milestone aimed at revolutionizing the digital and communications technology landscape in Zimbabwe,” said Mnangagwa.

“Investments of this magnitude and strategic importance represent the cornerstone for achieving the 2nd Republic’s objective of having a fully digitalized, upper-middle income economy by 2030.”

Starlink’s history in Zimbabwe

Zimbabweans have been clamouring for Starlink services to be officially supported in the country for months.

However, the government had taken a hardline stance on the service, conducting raids where law enforcement officials confiscated Starlink equipment and arrested people distributing, advertising, or using Starlink equipment.

Several arrests have been reported, including the arrest of a Zimbabwean politician’s son.

In response, Zimbabweans camouflaged their Starlink dishes as solar panels and had also hidden them in the back of polelights.

“We crack it open and modify it so that it runs on 12 volt DC. The unit is then able to fit inside either a solar panel or a street light,” said an anonymous individual.

“Converting it in this way also enables us to do away with the cable and the Starlink router.”

A POTRAZ spokesperson told H-Metro that until the service was licenced, individuals needed to “wait for permission.”

“The telecommunications process requires that they not interfere with other services,” said the spokesperson.

“Their clearance is critical to ensuring that frequencies do not conflict with one another.”

Starlink kit modified with fake solar panel cover

Starlink plans in Zimbabwe vs South Africa

Starlink had prepared for approval in Zimbabwe, with its coverage map stating in April that it expected to roll out in the third quarter of 2024.

This is in contrast with South Africa, where there is no expected rollout date.

Starlink has not applied to industry regulator Icasa for the licences it needs to operate in South Africa.

This is believed to be due to the country’s ownership rules for telecom licensees — which include these licensees being at least 30% owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

SpaceX’s ownership structure is complex, comprising many investment firms and major corporates that do not track these demographics.

It is also not possible to simply apply for a national telecommunications service licence. Icasa must issue an open invitation to apply.

The only other way to acquire one is to apply to Icasa to transfer a licence from an existing holder.

Another alternative is for Starlink to work through a local licensee, as it has done in Zimbabwe.

Icasa has made it clear that the use of Starlink is illegal. Anyone found providing Starlink services without a licence could be fined up to R5 million or 10% of their annual turnover — whichever is greater.

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Zimbabwe approves Starlink — But South Africa remains in the dark