Big fight against Starlink in South Africa

Wireless Internet Service Providers (Wisps) face a threat from disruptive services like Starlink, especially in rural areas where there is little to no fibre infrastructure and spotty cellular coverage.

Starlink promises much higher speeds than Wisps can deliver, albeit at a higher price.

However, many people who cancel their Wisp accounts and import Starlink kits at great cost have ditched SpaceX’s satellite broadband service and returned to their wireless provider.

That is according to recent feedback from Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) spokesperson Paul Colmer.

Colmer said Wisps are still seeing demand for their services in South Africa despite the increase in uncapped mobile data products and unofficial competition from Starlink.

Wisps are fixed-wireless access (FWA) service providers that use unlicensed spectrum with the same frequencies as Wi-Fi to enable connectivity.

That is typically done with a pole or roof-mounted antenna with specialised noise-reduction technology at the customer’s home or business, which is pointed at a base station with the Wisp’s equipment.

Similar to a mobile network tower, the Wisp’s equipment is connected to a fixed backhaul network to connect to the Internet.

Among the well-known upstream Wisp networks in South Africa are open-access Rush Networks.

Similar to an open-access fibre network operator, Rush’s products are resold by numerous Internet service providers.

Another major player is Herotel Wireless, which operates a closed-access network formed by the merger of 30 Wisps in 2013.

There is general agreement that the most reliable type of Internet connection readily available to households is fibre-to-the-home (FTTH).

However, many areas still don’t have access to FTTH as it is not yet financially feasible to roll out there.

Over the past few years, competition for customers looking for alternatives has intensified.

Major mobile network operators — primarily MTN and, to some extent, Vodacom — have started offering uncapped fixed-LTE and fixed-5G services at affordable prices starting below R500.

This was to compete with similar services offered by upstarts Telkom and Rain.

Colmer acknowledged that Wisp revenues had been impacted by these products.

However, he accused the mobile networks of using “smoke and mirror” marketing and a “very loose” interpretation of terms like uncapped and unlimited to drive sales.

In addition, he pointed out that mobile networks were particularly susceptible to load-shedding, which strained batteries at towers with massive power consumption.

“Wisp towers use a fraction of that power, so they are real easy to build off-grid,” said Colmer.

“We are at a place now where consumers demand reliable connectivity, and not even 99% uptime is enough to stop client bleeding.”

“The mobile networks have been and are below this uptime, so we are seeing clients coming back who cancelled with a Wisp under the lure of great speed and cheap price.”

Colmer also told MyBroadband that there were still many areas where mobile connectivity was not sufficient to make up for a lack of fixed connectivity.

“Even though the mobile network operators claim they have in excess of 95% population coverage, we still see small retailers waving their credit card machines in the air in the car park in search of better signal,”  Colmer said.

“Wireless is so reliable, it even flourishes in areas that have other connectivity.”

Paul Colmer, WAPA spokesperson

Starlink’s shine wears off

Satellite-based service Starlink has also emerged as a game-changer for people in rural areas with no fixed connectivity and limited or slow mobile connectivity.

While not yet officially available in South Africa, Starlink has been used by thousands of people in remote areas via its roaming package, which must be registered in a country where the service has launched.

Many of them have reported excellent experiences, but according to Colmer, some of those who came from FWA services had quickly returned.

Colmer maintained the initial switch was not because Starlink could offer superior speeds but due to “a lot of tech hype” and the “Elon Musk wow factor”.

Colmer said Wisps had regained some of those customers, many of whom were now in possession of R15,000 “camping tables”, referring to the Starlink dish.

Starlink kit with power station tested at picnic spot in the Kruger National Park

Wisps want more spectrum

Colmer told MyBroadband the biggest challenge for Wisps remained “huge” interference in the unlicensed spectrum bands.

“We use sophisticated tech to combat this, but the reality is we need more spectrum,” said Colmer.

“We praise Icasa for opening the 6GHz band for unlicensed use in Wi-Fi for indoor use and look forward to its release in South Africa for standard power outdoor use following the global trend.”

WAPA hopes that this spectrum will not be allocated to 5G services, as has happened in some countries.

The association has slammed a resolution from the  World Radiocommunication Conference in November 2023 that Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East designate upper-band 6GHz spectrum for licenced use of 5G.

“Globally, 5G rollouts have yielded few success stories,” Colmer has argued.

“Hyped as the technology that would revolutionise the world and everything from self-driving cars to remote surgery, the reality has fallen far short.”

“These grand visions have proven to be little more than pipe dreams, making 5G perhaps the biggest white elephant in telecommunications history.”

“In stark contrast, Wi-Fi has been a monumental success. Yet, it has been starved of spectrum.”

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Big fight against Starlink in South Africa