Cost and Regulations Will Determine the Success of SpaceX’s Starlink in Africa

Falcon 9 B1060 lifts off with the US military’s GPS III SV03 spacecraft. Image by Teslarati/Richard Angle

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on 23 May 2019, launched 60 Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites to kickstart a planned 12,000 low orbit satellite constellation, as part of SpaceX’s 10-year $10-billion broadband space programme. The program is known as Starlink. As of 8 September 2020, SpaceX has launched 775 Starlink satellites. 

 

The long term projection for the Starlink is hinged on two factors; accessibility and affordability. When SpaceX’s fifth Falcon 9 rocket took flight, the goal was to make Internet services accessible to everyone in the world and to be equally affordable. The Starlink satellites will transmit to ground stations which will then enhance connectivity to various users through personal terminals. These terminals will be as small as the size of a pizza box.

An array of user terminals, bottom left, and ground stations, right, that SpaceX may be using to test its fleet of internet-beaming Starlink satellites. Image Source: darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)

The success of the Starlink project will be determined by several factors such as; if everyone will indeed be able to afford it; if governments will be receptive to it (considering that some national governments are competitors in the telecoms sector); and if users will be able to understand how it works. The easiest of all has been answered by Elon Musk when he explained how the terminals would work, Musk said on Twitter:  

Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view the sky. Instructions are simply:

  – Plug in socket

  – Point at sky

These instructions work in either order. No training required.”

However, the terminal is an oversimplification of the challenges ahead. 

Impact of regulatory frameworks

The Starlink is a telecoms satellite and falls under the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in terms of overall regulation, responsibilities, and unanimous acceptance by all member states.  As a United Nations entity, ITU coordinates spectrum at the international level for satellite operators to prevent signal interference and spectrum hogging. USA’s Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) on 15 October 2019, submitted filings to ITU on behalf of SpaceX to arrange spectrum for 30,000 additional Starlink satellites to supplement the 12,000 Starlink satellites already approved by the FCC. 

Headquarters of the International Telecommunications Union, Geneva. Image credit: Yann Forget.

Understanding the importance of LEO satellites, ITU, proposed in mid-2017 a guideline that would be considerably less restrictive, allowing effective operations. With 193 member states, the ITU is poised towards unanimously supporting LEO projects like the Starlink, as it would encourage the democratisation of access to ICT. Unfortunately, there may be some hindrances, especially for African countries. 

The current regulatory structure which the ITU works with was based on voice telecommunications because at the time of framing the regulations; the Internet was still in its infancy. In 1988, telecommunications operated under regulated monopolies in most countries, with several countries including Russia and China, calling for a regulatory revolution in the operations of ITU. The lack of comprehensive regulatory ecosystem, therefore, means that how states and citizens enjoy regional and national policies will determine the full benefit of the Starlink. 

Can ATU save the day?

The Africa Telecommunications Union (ATU) was established in 1977 with similar objectives as the ITU on the regional level. Unfortunately, the absence of infrastructures in Africa to enhance the goals of ATU has been a significant impediment. Also, the regulatory framework of the ATU is not in tandem with understanding or meeting up to global needs, and this puts the organisation years behind on the international radar. Interestingly, African countries are known to hoard resources unless there is more significant and more beneficial merit from sharing, and will therefore not give total support to ATU until there is an obvious reward. Eventually, everyone focuses on national regulations. Another significant concern then becomes internet censorship and bans. 

Censorship and Starlink; Oil and Water

A handful of African countries are sadly, quite known for internet shutdowns and censorship. In 2019, African countries lost USD 2.16 Billion due to internet shutdown. Most Internet shutdown activities happen in Africa in response to protests and civil unrests, and more noticeably when elections are around the corner. With about 20 elections forthcoming in African countries (including countries like Egypt and Ethiopia which shut down the internet at will), things are not about to change in 2020.

Internet shutdown is easier in these countries because the state telecommunications regulatory boards are usually active participants in the telecoms sector, and will act as suspect, judge and jury as the government deems fit. While Starlink will be able to broadcast to every nook and cranny of the world once in orbit, there is a likelihood that it will meet stiff resistance from censor focused nations which will have to host the ground stations for Starlink. 

The absence of a strong international regulatory body to affirm the operations of projects like the Starlink, therefore, means that governments may decide to co-opt the ground stations, but control them as they please, or refuse them altogether, to continue having a firm grip on freedom of speech and ICT access in concerned countries. 

Even though this is a fundamental problem, there is an even more treacherous one.

Can Africans afford Starlink?

A clearer view of SpaceX’s Pizza box/UFO style Starlink terminal

While one of the goals of SpaceX is affordable internet access, affordability is highly subjective to different economic realities. Starlink’s major terrestrial hurdle, Musk acknowledges, is the terminal receiver. Starlink’s low-flying satellites zoom across the sky in about five minutes, and antennas will need to keep up. 

The company plans to use “phased array antennas,” which can direct the machine’s focus electronically rather than physically spinning it around. The technique simplifies the device mechanically but comes at a high price. Tim Farrar, the president of TMF Associates, a satellite and telecom research firm, estimates that the gadget could cost more than $1,000, although Musk is targeting a price tag of under $300. In March, the FCC authorised SpaceX to distribute one million antennas, and SpaceX board members recently tested the devices, but the company has not yet announced the retail version. 

Considering how economically disadvantaged most African countries are, they are automatically disenfranchised from benefiting from the Starlink. 

But there are still other factors…

The nature of the LEO terminal receivers means users will be able to use them only in select places where they have been installed and mounted. Nobody is going to move around with a box of pizza every day and everywhere because of internet access. This, therefore means that Starlink will be tied to homes and offices. A great disadvantage sets in for Starlink because of Africa’s teeming youth population. As of 2019, about 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, and this population is constantly migrating. 

Visualisation of fibre infrastructure in Africa and population density, showing unserved regions. Total population is estimated for each 10,000 km2 hexagon; those with populations below 100,000 are excluded—source: Network Startup Resource Center, TeleGeography, and European Commission.

In 2019, GSMA report on global mobile internet connectivity showed that only 24% of Africa had access to mobile internet connectivity, and Africa represents 40% of the global population not connected to mobile internet broadband. As economic hardship grips different parts of the region, fibre connectivity remains the most widely known medium of accessing the internet. Even then, data is still as expensive as USD75.2 in some parts of the continent. Notably, this is mobile internet use without the added challenge of having to pay for terminals. 

Compared to other regions, Africans spend about 8.76% of their monthly income on internet data, and this is competing with everyday essentials like food, clothing and shelter. An expensive and uncomfortable internet access format like that of the Starlink is therefore bound to fail in Africa. 

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

The problems Africa faces are multifaceted, depending on what region of the continent or what country is in the discussion. The challenge of regulations, while not being Africa focused alone, will prove to be a more significant challenge for the continent as accountability is not a common fabric for governance on the continent. A regulatory framework agreed upon by the ITU or ATU will prove crucial towards enhancing access to the internet and ICT on the continent. 

The encouragement of further understanding the need for access to ICT resources will then make it easier for governments to support private companies or national telecommunications bodies to provide support for Starlink accessibility on the continent. This drive will make it easier for ground stations to be built, and possibly more affordable or subsidised terminal receiver. Private telecoms company, knowing that there is regulatory support, will also participate in a competitive grab for customers by providing complementary services with SpaceX to bring Starlink closer to people. 

Starlink has to compete with local operators in Africa, especially those currently navigating the African terrain with fibre connectivity. While Starlink may be able to penetrate the market through collaborations, especially as regards earning operation licences for their ground stations, it may be really challenging to defeat the mobility hindrance that it faces. Perhaps, in the future, Starlink may consider mobile routers that can access their connections without having users cut more than 5-10% of their income to maintain it. 

Fundamentally, Starlink still struggles with other issues like sustainability, debris management, and astronomy obstruction, which SpaceX is working to provide solutions. But in the African context, affordability and accessibility are priorities. Unless they are resolved, the Starlink lights may be seen from the continent, but what is up may not come down for the use of Africans.

© Space in Africa 2020

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New Report: The 2020 Edition of African Space Industry Annual Report is now available. It presents data and analyses on projects, deals, partnership and investments across the continent. It also provides analyses on the growing demand for space technologies and data on the continent, the business opportunities it offers and the necessary regulatory environment in the various countries.

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