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Amazon in talks with Icasa about bringing Starlink rival Project Kuiper to SA

While using Starlink in South Africa remains technically illegal, Amazon is working to get regulatory approval before launching its rival Project Kuiper service globally.

Vodafone and local subsidiary Vodacom announced in September last year that they plan to use Project Kuiper’s network to extend 4G and 5G services to underserviced customers in Europe and Africa.

Vodacom said it would specifically target areas where it may otherwise be challenging and prohibitively expensive to serve with traditional fibre or microwave backhaul connections.

The companies explained that Project Kuiper would connect geographically dispersed cellular antennas to their core telecom networks.

Amazon said it would partner with Vodafone to roll out Project Kuiper’s services to unserved and underserved communities around the world.

Project Kuiper’s product and business development head, Naveen Kachroo, also recently told News24 that they were in discussions with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

Kachroo said their approach is to engage early with regulators, as each country has its own regulatory framework to comply with.

Amazon’s approach stands in stark contrast to SpaceX’s strategy with Starlink.

Starlink’s strategy has been to launch first and deal with questions later, which has landed it in hot water with several African regulators.

This is thanks to its global and regional roaming services that have allowed subscribers to use Starlink in countries where it has not officially launched.

Zimbabwe’s industry regulator recently directed SpaceX to shut down Starlink in the country as it had not yet been properly licensed.

Shortly after that, Starlink warned all roaming customers that they would lose connectivity from end-April except in countries where it had officially launched.

The move threatened the connectivity of every Starlink user in South Africa, as they all rely on a roaming plan.

A large fast-food chain, government departments, and schools are among these users.

IcasaSePush, a large provider of Starlink dishes to South Africa, has also given a kit to non-profit PinkDrive, which uses it for mobile cancer screenings in remote areas.

Farmers and fishermen also use the service to communicate with loved ones and improve their security.

Fortunately for these subscribers, Starlink’s promised disconnections for roaming customers never came.

Starlink was officially approved in Zimbabwe and Botswana in May, with expected launch dates in Q3 2024. Starlink has also said it expects to launch in Namibia this year.

South Africa no longer has an expected Starlink launch date since Icasa made changes to the ownership requirements of network operators in the country.

Icasa also warned in November last year that Starlink was not properly licensed in South Africa.

It does not have the requisite network, service, or radio frequency spectrum licences to offer its services in South Africa.

To obtain these licences, Starlink must either establish a local entity that is 30% owned by historically disadvantaged groups or partner with one.

However, there is also a threat hanging over South Africa’s telecommunications industry. These requirements could become much stricter at a moment’s notice.

Icasa promulgated regulations in 2021 stipulating that national network operators must be 30% black-owned.

The new regulations suspended these requirements until a later commencement date, which Icasa has yet to announce.

It is believed that this regulatory uncertainty, and the ownership requirements themselves, have caused Starlink to deprioritise South Africa’s launch.

As a result, South Africa could become an island without official Starlink coverage while all our neighbours enjoy the service’s benefits.

MTN announced in December last year that it is in talks with Starlink and several other Low-Earth Orbit satellite broadband companies regarding partnerships to provide coverage in under-served areas.

This includes direct-to-cell technology, fixed connectivity for enterprise customers, and backhaul connectivity to cellular sites.

Vodacom’s parent company has also partnered with AST SpaceMobile to trial direct-to-cell connectivity, which was successfully tested in April last year. MyBroadband

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