Elon Musk’s Starlink appears to be making preparations to enter the South African market, and the SpaceX-owned satellite broadband service could be launched here sooner than expected, TechCentral has learnt.
An Icasa notice published in the Government Gazette last week focused on the “illegal provision of satellite internet services” has left telling clues about the SpaceX subsidiary’s intention to begin operating in the local market.
In the notice, Icasa confirmed that it has already granted approval for the licensing of three products needed to provide Starlink services in the local market. These “type approval” certificates were awarded to Paratus Telecommunications, Magic Space Dust and Data X Lab.
“It should be abundantly obvious that you cannot apply for type approvals for Starlink kit without Starlink’s explicit authority,” said Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor to the Internet Service Providers’ Association (Ispa) in an interview with the TechCentral Show (TCS) to be published on Tuesday.
“So, now we have a link to say that Starlink is interested in South Africa, to the extent that they have bothered to get their core equipment type approved,” Cull said. “They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have an intention of entering the South African market.”
The products that Icasa granted type approval for and the companies that applied for them are a Starlink router, for which Data X Lab was the applicant, and two gateways, for which Paratus and Magic Space Dust were the applicants. Paratus is one of Starlink’s pan-African distribution partners, while Data X Lab is a specialist service provider that helps companies interact with regulators like Icasa. TechCentral was not able to ascertain what Magic Space Dust does as the company does not have a website. However, it appears the firm is registered in Leeds in the UK.
To BEE, or not to BEE
In the interview with TCS, Cull warned against making assumptions about why Starlink hasn’t yet been launched in South Africa. Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Democratic Alliance’s former spokeswoman on communications, blamed the ANC’s “archaic” legislation relating to black economic empowerment for Starlink’s alleged reluctance to do business in South Africa. But neither SpaceX nor Musk has ever formally said anything about the matter.
“We don’t know publicly what is going on. But we have politicians politicking, as they do, and seeking to score points. That put a lot of misinformation into the public sphere. We assumed in the public discourse that Starlink is refusing to enter the South African market because of that 30% historically disadvantaged individual equity ownership requirement by the government, without any confirmation from Starlink,” said Cull.
He emphasised that Starlink is not being asked to give up a portion of its global equity, only 30% of its South African subsidiary. This, Cull said, is no different from what Icasa asks of any other multinational seeking to be licensed.
“We know from Starlink that they regard South Africa as a challenging regulatory environment. We have transformation licensing and type-approval requirements that need to be observed. Starlink from the get-go has categorised jurisdictions according to the ease of entry from a regulatory perspective, and we were unfortunately in the third category.”
Setting up a local subsidiary is just one of the ways that Starlink could choose to enter the local market, in which case it will have to acquire service and network licences as well as a spectrum licence. The other option is to sell Starlink products and services through a local partner that already has these licences.
So, although Starlink’s exact plans remain opaque, the company’s actions suggest it has plans to launch in South Africa – and it may happen sooner than many had expected. “Starlink … could be up and running in South Africa long before the launch dates predicted for neighbouring countries,” Cull predicted.
TechCentral has asked SpaceX for comment on its plans for Starlink in South Africa and will update this article should feedback be received.
Catch the full interview with Cull on the TechCentral Show on Tuesday. – © 2023 NewsCentral Media