IN a world where connectivity is a lifeline for information, education, and economic opportunities, the promise of Starlink, SpaceX’s ambitious satellite internet project, shines brightly for rural and unconnected regions in Africa.
However, recent developments suggest that some African countries are hesitant to grant Starlink the operating licences it needs, and they have proposed stringent requirements.
Zimbabwe’s internet penetration is around 62%, according to the telecoms regulator. I am not sure if this is the internet penetration or mobile penetration rate.The regulator issued a statement that importing and accessing the web using Starlink without a licence from them was and is illegal.
On the surface, this may seem trivial, but regulatory oversight is crucial for ensuring network reliability and security. However, the situation becomes complex when considering the vast, underserved, or completely unconnected areas in Zimbabwe and other African nations.
In remote areas like Binga, Guruve, Chiredzi, Tsholotsho, and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe, local operators have often shown little interest in extending their coverage to areas they deem unprofitable based on ARPU (Average Revenue Per User).
The regulator has established a Universal Service Fund (USF), meant to specifically address this issue by levying a certain percentage from all telecom operators in Zimbabwe, both large and small. Consequently, people in these regions are left with limited options. They can either continue to live without internet access, a disadvantage in an increasingly digital world, or they can import Starlink kits to establish connectivity independently.
The standard procedure dictates that any satellite operator must have an earth-based station to interconnect with local networks. This is important for several reasons, including security and ease of interconnections. Although it may seem like an unnecessary burden, in a world where cybercrime, fraud, and scams are on the rise, having a database of end-users (who, what, where, when, and why) becomes essential.
The moral argument here is compelling. If local mobile operators are unwilling to invest in extending their services to the most remote parts of the country, should rural residents be denied the opportunity to access the global information highway through Starlink?
Moreover, it is crucial that any licensing regime recognises the importance of educational institutions. Schools and academic institutions should not be burdened with exorbitant fees for using Starlink to bridge the digital divide and provide quality education to students in underserved areas.
The statements issued by the authorities seem to put the rural population in a difficult position and of course many urban dwellers. On one hand, people are forbidden from importing Starlink kits without licences and, on the other hand, mobile operators are uninterested in servicing these areas.
This leaves end-users often in desperate need of connectivity for education and economic development, farming, security, call conferencing, remote services etc with no viable options.
To address this conundrum, it is essential that the Information Communication Technology (ICT) ministry come up with a future focused licensing regime for StarX, something that the regulators our regulator is more than capable of doing. By doing so, potential users can purchase equipment from known and licensed distributors, ensuring the government does not lose revenue due to smuggled kits.
While it is understandable that local operators have invested millions in their licences, technological disruption is a constant. Once upon a time, it was illegal to make calls over the internet. Yes VoIP.
The high cost of data and the very limited availability of networks are major obstacles for students and professionals alike. As universities churn out thousands of graduates annually, the greatest challenge they face is the affordability and availability of network connectivity.
Recently, the ICT minister was quoted as saying that Starlink must adhere to the country’s laws.There is a thin line between security and privacy from a technical point of view. While users must enjoy their constitutional right to access information, it would be difficult to conduct data traces from user to end user in cases of fraud or cyber breaches. Who is collecting what data and for what purposes? Is it in compliance with the Data Protection Act?
These are things that the telecoms regulator deals with on a daily basis, but I have a gut feeling that the regulator’s hands might be tied. A delicate balance must be struck to open up a whole new channel to meet our ever-increasing bandwidth needs, which our local telcos cannot deal with at this stage. As if the network is a person, today when you go anywhere, especially supermarkets, they tell you: “Akula network” or “Hapana network” (there is no network). The writing is on the wall.
Like all disruptive technologies, a balance must be struck, or we will be giving the regulator a job-and-a-half to try and monitor every square mile of Zimbabwe in search of Starlink kits. It is a no-brainer.The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, never mind Artificial Intelligence.
There should be a push for streamlined licensing processes to ensure that Starlink can be a beacon of hope, providing connectivity to underserved regions and helping Africa achieve its 2030 goals in the digital era. In a world where knowledge knows no boundaries, let us not hinder the progress of our people due to a lack of connectivity.
Starlink’s introduction will not only boost connectivity in rural areas but also in our cities, where network service levels are mostly well below acceptable Service Level Agreements due to mostly problems beyond their reach such as power outages, the cost of upstream bandwidth, maintenance costs, fuel and skills shortage. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority will be an unintended beneficiary through taxes if the licensing process is clear and taxes are not punitive.
For the uninitiated, Starlink services use a kit that weighs about 7kg, depending on the model. It points to the sky and does not need any mobile network or fiber connection, providing very high speeds and low latency.
Currently, kits cost about US$500 in areas where Starlink has rights but, like any disruptive technology, prices will likely decrease. Starlink kits connect to low-orbiting satellites 500km above or below the Earth’s surface. Anyone from anywhere can buy a kit from Malawi and put it on roaming, enabling connectivity even in remote areas with no cellular coverage.
We plead to the ICT minister to give the regulator enough room to come up with a balanced policy so as to protect all stakeholders but not to hinder their work through the sort of political overtones that a former ICT minister raised in Parliament recently.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is encouraging people to embrace the digital dollar — yes we can. But we connect using what? That is a question from the unconnected. I am confident that the powers that be will allow the regulator to do its function — creating a level playing field without undue interference or influence. Only that way can we work towards fulfilling Vision 2030.
About the writer: Robert Ndlovu is a vastly experienced ICT consultant and engineer.