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SA regulator warns against 'illegal' Starlink equipment sales

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South Africa's communications regulator has cautioned companies that are reportedly importing and selling Starlink satellite Internet terminals in South Africa, calling the practice "illegal" and warning that fines could be imposed.

The SpaceX-owned company offers an Internet service via its large constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) published a general notice via the Government Gazette on November 28, 2023, about the "illegal provision of or access to satellite Internet services and possession, distribution or use of satellite broadband terminals and equipment in South Africa."

It said it had noted recent developments on the alleged provision of satellite Internet services through Starlink terminals in South Africa, and of some entities distributing Starlink products from within the country and from the neighboring countries.

"The Authority has indicated previously, through numerous media engagements, that Starlink does not hold any licence issued by the Authority to provide electronic communications, electronic communications network or broadcasting services in South Africa," the regulator said.

The notice signed by ICASA Acting Chairperson Yolisa Kedama indicates that "no person may provide a service (i.e. broadcasting, electronic communications and electronic communications network services) without a licence."

ICASA said that any person who provides a service without a license "is guilty of an offence" and liable to a fine of up to R5 million (US$269,600) or 10% of the person or licensee's annual turnover for every day or part thereof during which the offence continued.

ICASA Acting Chairperson Yolisa Kedama.   (Source: ICASA)
ICASA Acting Chairperson Yolisa Kedama.
(Source: ICASA)

Because Starlink is not licensed locally, South Africans cannot order kits directly from the company's website. But some have reportedly found ways to purchase equipment and use the satellite tech via optional regional and international roaming features.

"The public and licensees are encouraged to report incidents of suspected noncompliance by contacting ICASA at [email protected] or any ICASA Regional Office," it said.

South Africa trails behind African peers

South Africa has made it clear that SpaceX's Starlink is not welcome in the country without a license, despite several of its African peers already launching Starlink's satellite Internet service.

The latest was Benin earlier this month which became the seventh country in Africa to go live with Starlink services.

Benin followed launches in Nigeria, Rwanda, Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia.

Starlink's connectivity map shows plans for launches in many African countries in 2024, including South Africa's neighbors Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini.

South Africa is however not the only African country opposing Starlink's arrival.

Senegal banned the sale of Starlink kits and five people were arrested in August 2023 for this offense, facing up to five years in jail and a $100,000 fine.

Zimbabwe initially issued a warning against the unlicensed use of the Internet service but is now reportedly holding licensing discussions with Starlink.

To license or not to license

In April 2023, South African Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Mondli Gungubele, denied claims that the government was blocking the operation of Starlink, which is the brainchild of South African-born Elon Musk.

The Minister had said that offering satellite services in South Africa required a license from ICASA, and at that time no application had been made by Starlink.

However, it's not quite as simple as just applying for a license.

ICASA said that SA's Electronic Communications Act (ECA) prescribes that it "may only accept and consider applications for Individual Electronic Communications Network Services [I-ECNS] licences in terms of a policy direction issued by the Minister."

After a directive, ICASA must publish an invitation to apply (ITA) for an I-ECNS license which will outline the application process, including the application fee and the closing date for the submission of applications.

There is also another type of license – an Individual Electronic Communications Services (I-ECS) license – which can also be applied for after the Authority publishes an ITA in the Government Gazette.

"The Authority would like to emphasise that currently there is no policy direction issued by the Minister and no ITA issued by the Authority that makes it possible for the Authority to consider applications for I-ECNS and/or I-ECS licences," ICASA said in its publication this week.

Without an ITA, the other option is to buy a license, or part of one, from a company which already has one, for which you need permission from ICASA and which comes with a nonrefundable fee.

"If an applicant intends to operate its own network and provide Internet services, then such applicant must apply for both a service and network licence," ICASA added.

Another hurdle for Starlink is that in order to apply for an I-ECNS license the company would need to adhere to rules around equity ownership by South African citizens and historically disadvantaged people.

"The Authority encourages any interested person who wishes to provide broadband services, within the borders of South Africa, to adhere to and follow the licensing requirements as set out in the legislative and regulatory framework, to ensure that services are provided efficiently, fairly and in the best interest of stakeholders in the ICT sector, including consumers and licensees," the regulator said.

Type-approvals for Starlink equipment

According to the ECA: "No person may possess, use, supply, sell, offer for sale, lease or hire any type of electronic communications equipment or electronic communication facility, including radio apparatus unless such equipment or electronic communications has been type-approved."

A type-approval certificate verifies that the equipment conforms to the technical standards for electronic communications devices prescribed by ICASA.

There are a few companies that have been given a type-approval for Starlink equipment in SA: Paratus Telecommunications, Magic Space Dust and Data X Lab.

The companies granted type-approvals for Starlink equipment in SA
ICASA's list of companies with type-approvals for Starlink equipment and the purpose of the equipment.   (Source: ICASA Government Gazette No. 49777 Vol. 701)
ICASA's list of companies with type-approvals for Starlink equipment and the purpose of the equipment.
(Source: ICASA Government Gazette No. 49777 Vol. 701)

The regulator encouraged the public not to purchase or operate any electronic communications equipment that accesses services provided by companies not licensed to operate in South Africa, or use any equipment or terminal that has not been type-approved by ICASA.

"Non-type-approved equipment poses a risk of causing harmful interference to the radio frequency spectrum. It further causes a lack of dissonance among devices operating in the same environment resulting in equipment not being functional. Furthermore, equipment which is not type-approved could potentially explode or implode thus putting consumers in harm's way," ICASA explained.

Paratus Group has a pan-African reseller agreement to provide Starlink's services on the continent which is probably why it applied for type-approval in SA.

In October 2023, Starlink announced a partnership with e-commerce company Jumia to sell its Internet equipment for residential use in Africa. Jumia operates in South Africa, but it seems unlikely it will be allowed to sell Starlink equipment without a type-approval from ICASA.

Follow Connecting Africa on our new X account @connect__africa to get the latest telecoms and tech news across Africa.

"The Authority welcomes the advent of technologies that will contribute to ensuring universal service and access to all South Africans and assist in bridging the digital divide. However, this must be done within the country's regulatory framework as set out in the ECA," ICASA concluded.

Related posts:

*Top image source: Starlink.

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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