Last month a number of reputable news outlets reported that Starlink was coming to Zimbabwe. Starlink is owned by a company called SpaceX. SpaceX is a privately owned space exploration company founded by Elon Musk and has generated significant buzz in the global tech community with its new project, Starlink. This project aims to bring high-speed internet to remote regions of the world through a network of satellites in low Earth orbit. Given how much of Zimbabwe is poorly covered by mobile network operators and fibre, Starlink would be a godsend breath of fresh air to a now very stale telecoms landscape.
However, recent reports have indicated that the government of Zimbabwe has yet to grant SpaceX a license to operate Starlink in the country. This raises important questions about the future of internet connectivity in Zimbabwe and the potential impact of this ambitious project. By law, all internet service providers in Zimbabwe have to be registered with POTRAZ the body that oversees the sector. Before an operator can start offering it’s services it has to be licensed first.
The Promise of Starlink for Zimbabwe
If successful, Starlink has the potential to bring internet access to areas of Zimbabwe that currently lack reliable connectivity. This could have a major impact on the economic and social development of these communities. Notable beneficiaries would include mines that often have to set up offices and hubs in remote inaccessible areas, non-governmental organisations such as WFP, rural clinics and district hospitals, remote government offices, post offices in remote areas, and rural schools.
In addition, Starlink could also provide new opportunities for remote work and digital commerce in Zimbabwe, boosting the country’s economy and driving innovation in industries that depend on a strong internet connection. A lot of remotely located organisations have often been left behind because they are too far away from good internet.
The Hurdles Facing Starlink in Zimbabwe
Despite its potential benefits, Starlink faces significant challenges in its rollout in Zimbabwe. One of the biggest obstacles is getting the licence that is required by regulations for satellite-based internet services in the country. The process is often opaque, hard to understand and drag out for months or even years. This could cause delays in obtaining the licenses and approvals necessary to operate Starlink.
This is not as insurmountable a challenge as others are making it out to be. You only need to look at the case of Kwese and the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). Starlink doesn’t really need to get its own licence in Zimbabwe, they just need to have a licence. In the case of Kwese, they partnered with a local company which gave them a licence cover and so they did not need to go through the difficult and long process of getting one. All Starlink has to do is partner with say Utande and they would be good to go. In fact, most VSAT services offered in Zimbabwe are actually being provided by other foreign companies.
The biggest hurdle is not going to be regulation or POTRAZ, it’s going to be money. A lot of Zimbabweans earn less than a dollar per day. Such folks are unlikely to have money for the expensive equipment that Starlink is selling. They will probably stick with their more accessible bundles. That however doesn’t have a role to play even in poverty-stricken areas. All that’s required is for someone to say start an internet cafe in such areas and offer cheaper WiFi bundles and other similar services and this problem will be solved. Besides, the clients who will benefit from this will be able to afford it anyway.
The Future of Starlink in Zimbabwe
Everything is pretty much up in the air at the moment. Starlink is yet to land in Africa although it has been confirmed that it will be coming to Zambia. Zimbabwe would benefit immensely from Starlink. Rather than treating it as a foe the government and the people of Zimbabwe should be embracing it with open arms rather than with barely concealed bureaucratic hostility.
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