POTRAZ on Starlink: We’ve spoken to Elon Musk, and told him we’re waiting

Zimbabwe’s telecoms regulator says it has told Elon Musk that his SpaceX should first submit a licence before its Starlink can be allowed to operate in the country.

On Friday, Starlink blocked services to users in Zimbabwe, where customers use imported “illegal” kits. The company is yet to apply to operate in Zimbabwe, according to Gift Machengete, director general of the Posts and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ). He says spoke with Musk on Thursday and asked that SpaceX submit a formal application to provide services in Zimbabwe. Once they do, he says, the application would be processed quickly.

“It was a very cordial meeting and he understood what we are doing,” Machengete told Bloomberg on Friday. “I don’t think it will take a very long time once they have submitted.”

Machengete added: “Its 100% true that we have asked them to disable those that are connected until they regularise. This is illegal — how can we allow people to broadcast before they are licensed?” 

Most African nations are yet to licence Starlink. SpaceX has struggled with regulators across the continent, and is available in only nine countries in Africa. It has been not yet been approved in countries such as South Africa, Botswana and Ghana, but it is available in Mozambique, Zambia and seven other African countries.

Starlink kits are in demand in Zimbabwe, finding a ready market among customers frustrated by what they see as high internet costs and patchy coverage. Starlink, should it be licenced, would likely compete mostly in remote areas with little coverage. Local telecoms operators say they are not opposed to Starlink’s entry into the market, but they want the US company to pay the same licence fees and taxes that they do.

Mobile operators, such as Econet, paid US$137.5 million for 20 years for their current licences. Classes of internal access provider licences go up to US$5.5 million. Local operators say for each dollar spent on their network, 25 cents goes to taxes.

“Low Earth Orbit satellite service providers do not make such contributions and we would like to advocate that should LEO satellites be licensed in Zimbabwe, they should be subject to the same tax and levy regime as the existing sector players,” according to the Telecommunications Operators Association of Zimbabwe (TOAZ) in a recent statement. TOAZ says satellite services are unlikely to plug the gap in the market, which is caused by low access to foreign currency and inflation.  

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