SpaceX’s Starlink Internet service performs reasonably well in South Africa, even without official availability and when tested in a location with significant operational issues.
We recently got our hands on a “Dishy”, the unofficial name given to the Starlink satellite antenna by the service’s growing community of users.
This was courtesy of Northern Cape-based Internet service provider IT LEC.
The ISP has imported several batches of Starlink kits for its customers, many of whom live in highly rural areas with minimal Internet options.
Most of these customers have had to rely on mobile connectivity — including LTE packages — but many of the cellular towers in their areas have inadequate or no backup power during load-shedding.
In addition, the ISP said there were only two technicians from Vodacom and MTN maintaining towers within a large expanse between the towns of Aggeneys, Kuruman, and Prieska.
While Starlink has no estimated availability date in South Africa yet, the service supports global roaming, including in countries where it is not yet live.
IT LEC customers can choose to have the service managed on their behalf or take over their accounts once Starlink launches locally.
Customers pay R15,000 for the Starlink kit and a monthly fee roughly equivalent to $99 (R1,906). The latter can vary depending on when the customer signed up.
Our Starlink kit arrived at our office on Monday, 22 May 2023, and we did some quick testing that evening at a suburban home in Pretoria East.
We found that the entire setup process was simple. Much simpler than getting a fibre connection from the street to your house.
The Starlink box came with the rectangular Dishy that already had a 15-metre cable plugged into its “stem”.
At first, the other side of the cable appeared to be a USB-C connector, but closer inspection revealed it to be for some type of proprietary port.
This had to be plugged into the weighty Wi-Fi router.
Unfortunately, this did not have an Ethernet port for connecting via cable, so we had to conduct all our testing over a Wi-Fi connection.
Starlink does offer an Ethernet adapter, but this must be bought separately.
Other components in the package included the metal mounting base into which the dish’s stem is inserted, installation instructions and safety guidance, and the power adapter.
Interestingly, the power plug was Type I, the standard for outlets used in Argentina, Australia, China, and New Zealand.
IT LEC told MyBroadband that although most of its imported kits came from the US and Canada, it also sourced units from Australia, Europe, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Fortunately, the ISP adds an adapter to customers’ boxes to connect to a South African outlet.
The amount of jury-rigging involved in our initial hands-on tests should not be understated.
As our first testing opportunity was at night, we opted to avoid climbing on any roofs in the darkness, which could have improved the signal quality and is probably what many customers would end up doing.
Instead, we planted the dish on top of a car parked in the next-best possible location with a relatively open view of the sky.
We plan to do more in-depth testing in better-suited locations in the coming weeks.
With online forums stating that Starlink requires a minimum open viewing angle of 110 degrees in all directions, we did not have high hopes.
Because Starlink communicates through high-band radio frequency spectrum with shorter wavelengths, its network strength is very susceptible to obstructions like trees — similar to DStv.
After placing the dish in position and plugging the cables into the router, we hopped on the Starlink Wi-Fi using a smartphone.
Opening a browser directed us to a Starlink setup page where we could enter a name for our network and create a password.
We were connected to the Internet in less than two minutes after powering up the router.
During that time, the Starlink dish had rotated automatically and pointed itself in a southern direction.
The dish can take up to 12 hours to thoroughly analyse its location and surroundings to give users an idea of what type of connectivity they can expect and how frequently disruptions to the service might occur.
Alternatively, users can manually scan the environment around and above the dish using the app’s “Visibility” feature.
This requires pointing the camera around the sky in the direction that the dish is pointed to scan for obstructions.
The tool recommended that we find a better spot for an improved signal.
Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a better area, so the dish would have to deal with its hostile environment.
As a result, the Starlink app showed that our connection was consistently alternating between being online and offline and reported numerous short outages over a period of 36 minutes.
Speed test results on the Starlink app would only work when a connection was established.
In these instances, we repeatedly achieved in the range of 150Mbps downloads and over 50Mbps for uploads.
When using our own MyBroadband Speed Test app, the best download speed we achieved was 82.23Mbps, while uploads peaked at 12.08Mbps.
We also had several tests recording speeds in the single digits.
It should be noted that MyBroadband’s speed test server is located in South Africa and relies on peering at NAPAfrica.
Tests to it were therefore likely routing via Rwanda back to South Africa, as explained below.
In terms of real-life usage, the breaks in connectivity often went unnoticed.
Our Starlink experience could best be described as “fast, but with short spurts of disconnects”.
General browsing and even 1080p video streaming on YouTube and Netflix were no problem.
In the case of the latter, a video would almost always buffer far enough ahead during periods of connectivity.
By the time we reached the unbuffered part of the video, the disconnect would have been resolved, and playback continued uninterrupted.
Pushing quality up to 1440p introduced some loading issues, however.
We did not attempt to do any online gaming because the ping on the connection was not nearly low enough to even risk the inevitable frustration.
Across our speed tests, latency varied greatly — dropping as low as 166ms and shooting up to 514ms in successful speed tests on the MyBroadband Speed Test app.
The Starlink app recorded a minimum of 71ms and a maximum of 4,831ms.
One of the major reasons for the high latency was that the nearest Starlink ground station was in Kigali, Rwanda, where Starlink is already officially available.
IT LEC told MyBroadband that the ping had improved substantially since they started testing Starlink in South Africa eight months ago.
It had averaged around 800ms then but has dropped to around 200ms.
The ISP expects this to improve further with the scheduled arrival of Starlink in Mozambique in the next three months.
Despite the high latency, IT LEC said for its customers who either had very poor or no connectivity at all, Starlink has been a “game changer”.
SpaceX expects the performance of its Starlink network to continue improving substantially as it puts more of its satellites into orbit.
As of May 2023, it had launched over 4,000 Starlink satellites.
The company already has approval for a further 8,000 and wants to launch another 30,000 in addition to those.
The latest generation of Starlink satellites can transfer data between each other instead of having to relay it through a ground station.
As more of them become available, further improvements in capacity and latency are anticipated.
A higher concentration of satellites will also mean that the amount of open sky customers need will shrink, supposedly to around 30–40 degrees in all directions.
Below is a screenshot showing the Starlink constellation over South Africa at the time of our testing.