Communications regulator Icasa has hit out at companies that have reportedly been importing and selling Starlink satellite internet terminals in South Africa, saying this practice is “illegal” and must stop.
Starlink, the low-Earth-orbit fleet of internet satellites launched and managed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, does not have a licence to operate in South Africa, Icasa emphasised on Wednesday. It’s not known why Starlink has not applied for the licences, but speculation has centred on a requirement under Icasa regulations that licensees must have at least 30% equity ownership from historically disadvantaged people.
Icasa said the public should refrain from buying or operating any equipment provided by entities that are not licensed to operate in South Africa. All equipment must also be “type-approved” by the regulator before it can be sold and used legally in the country’s borders.
“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,” it said.
Icasa said it “noted” recent developments regarding the “alleged provision of satellite internet services through Starlink terminals in South Africa, and of some entities distributing Starlink products in South Africa from within the country and from the neighbouring 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,” it said.
On the licensing of satellite internet services, Icasa said that legislation – specifically, the Electronic Communications Act – states that it may only accept and consider applications for individual network licences (so-called I-ECNS licences) if there is a policy direction from the minister of communications in this regard. However, service licences – also known as I-ECS licences – can be applied for by anyone after Icasa publishes an invitation to apply (ITA) in the Government Gazette in terms of the relevant regulations.
“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,” it said.
“However, any entity wishing to obtain an I-ECNS and/or I-ECS licence, in the absence of a policy directive and/or ITA, may approach any current I-ECNS/I-ECS licensee willing to transfer or part with its individual licence. The licensee/transferor must approach the authority to apply for permission to transfer the licence…”
If the applicant intends to operate its own network and provide internet services, then they must apply for both a service and network licence, according to Icasa’s rules.
“The authority, as a creature of statute, has a responsibility to protect its licensees and consumers by ensuring that there is fair participation and competition in the market. Therefore, any provision of broadcasting and/or electronic communications services, including the use of the radio frequency spectrum, without the necessary service or radio frequency spectrum licences is a direct contravention of the ECA,” Icasa said.
It warned that hefty penalties could be imposed on anyone breaking the rules. “Any person who provides a service without a licence … is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding the greater of R5-million or 10% of the person or licensee’s annual turnover for every day or part thereof during which the offence continued,” it said.
“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.”