To say Zimbabweans are interested in Starlink is quite an understatement. Mention Starlink in any context and heads pop up, “Hanzi chii? Is it coming? Where can I get one?”
The biggest question has always been, “What do the regulators think about it?” For its part, the Postal and Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe has been silent on the matter even as more and more people imported Starlink kits into the country.
POTRAZ has broken its vow of silence and let us know just what they think about Starlink. They bared their soul in a public notice:
PUBLIC NOTICE ON SATELLITE INTERNET SERVICES
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) regulates the provision of postal and telecommunicaions services in Zimbabwe. The manadate of POTRAZ includes licensing of postal and telecommunications service providers and enforcement of compliance with licence conditions and applicable laws for the sector. The licences are issued in terms of the Postal and Telecommunications Act [Chapter 12:05] (The Act), as read with the Postal and Telecommunications (Licensing, Registration and Certificaion) Regulations, 2021.
Under the current licensing framework, the provision of internet by means of satellite systems can be done by Public Network Operators or by foreign-based satellite service providers/operators. A foreign-based Satellite Service Provider/Operator can offer services in Zimbabwe using any of the following options: –
Through duly licensed Public Network Operators. Under this arrangement the Satellite Operator and the local network Operator enter a Virtual Network Operator (VNO) agreement, that must be approved by the authority, to ensure that the public network operator meets legal and regulatory requirements stipulated in the licence.
A Satellite Service Provider/Operator can apply for their own licence that would authorise them to provide services.
End users can apply for private network licences which would authorise the utilisation of externally operated Satellite systems.
The Act prohibits the provision of telecommunications services or operation of telecommunications systems, including the possession or control of radio transmission equipment without a licence, certificate or authorisation expressly given by POTRAZ.
It has come to the attention of the Authority that there are entities masquerading as licensed Satellite Service Providers or local agents accredited to distribute customer premises equipment for the provision of satellite-based internet services to unsuspecting members of the public.
The public is reminded that only service providers who are licensed or authorised by POTRAZ are permitted at law to provide telecommunications services or distribute/install customer premises equipment for purposes of providing telecommunications services inluding satellite-based broadband internet service to customers or end-users.
The public is further reminded that local licensed Operators are only allowed to distribute satellite-based internet services if their VNO agreemenst have been approved by the Authority.
Being found in possession of or operating a telecommunications equipment/ system without a valid licence, certificate or authorisation from POTRAZ is a statutory offence punishable at law.
Starlink can be used in Zimbabwe legally even before it is licensed by POTRAZ.
Starlink can either apply for a license from POTRAZ or partner with a local company that is registered as a public network operator. In most countries where Starlink is available, they have applied for their own license. It is therefore likely that they will do the same in Zimbabwe.
We remain in the dark about why it is taking so long for Starlink to be licensed in Zimbabwe. POTRAZ previously stated that they had not received any application from Starlink, but Starlink has said that they intend to launch in Zimbabwe in Q4 2023. If this timeline is accurate, we should have heard something from POTRAZ by now.
While we wait for Starlink to enter the Zimbabwean market through POTRAZ or a local public network operator, we, the end-users, can apply to POTRAZ for permission to use Starlink.
However, the fact that ZBC appears to have been granted permission to use Starlink does not necessarily mean that you will be granted permission.
Licensing is reasonable
I understand the need to regulate internet services in the country. However, there are some serious gaps in the market that Starlink can fill such that it should be given special treatment, in my opinion. POTRAZ should play blind and let us use it in the shadows until such time as it is officially licensed.
There are remote/isolated places that will not be covered by terrestrial internet providers because it doesn’t make any business sense to build a base station for two families in some little forest in rural Matebeleland, for example.
Indeed many of those who are using Starlink in Zimbabwe are using it in otherwise uncovered places if the questions we get and social media are to be believed.
So, until and unless we have affordable and fast internet access across the country we should be bending over backwards to attract the likes of Starlink.
I am aware that it is unfair to companies like Econet that have to pay US$137.5 million to be able to operate but internet access is a human right according to the UN. So what’s $137.5 million when people’s rights are being trampled on?
A losing battle
POTRAZ made it clear that it is illegal to use Starlink without express permission from them. The only problem for them is that few people care about that. People believe it is an old and out-of-touch law and won’t even think twice about breaking it.
I understand where people are coming from. It’s like living in a village in a rural area that is 15km away from a grocery shop. Then someone opens one just 2km from you and the village chief shuts it down saying the owner did not pay homage to him first.
Every single villager will scream, “To heck with your homage, we are not about to walk 15km to buy cooking oil because your ego is bruised.”
Potraz is not unlike the chief in this analogy. We all feel like, “To heck with your licensing, we are not about to miss out on $50 for fast unlimited internet on every inch of Zimbabwe because you want Starlink to pay homage to you and pony up some yams.”
We really should not take this stance but I’m afraid it is what we have been pushed to. Potraz and ZRP will find it hard to enforce this law. Remember that many people are using these Starlink kits in remote and isolated places where there is no substitute. Who is going to locate these kits?
We shall try to apply for permission to use Starlink in Zimbabwe to see how the legal process goes.