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Zimbabwe Starlink Users Left in Limbo as Satellite Internet Service Faces Regulatory Hurdles

Starlink intends to come to Zimbabwe between October and December 2023

ZiMetro has learned that the Zimbabwean government has instructed Starlink to cease its services in the country. Users of the satellite internet service provider received notifications today, informing them of the directive to deactivate their services.

According to the email sent to users:

“You are currently using Starlink in an unauthorized territory. As a result, Starlink has been instructed by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) to disable your service.

We are actively working with POTRAZ to secure the necessary regulatory approvals to resume Starlink services in Zimbabwe at the earliest opportunity. We encourage you to reach out to POTRAZ at [email protected] or +263 242 333032 to express your support for Starlink in obtaining the required regulatory approvals in Zimbabwe.

As outlined in your Terms of Service, Starlink does not guarantee the availability of its services in terms of time or location, as this is subject to various factors, including regulatory approvals that may change over time.

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You have the option to pause service and billing by following the instructions provided or continue using your Starlink service in areas where it is currently available (see map here). If you choose to pause service, please contact support, and we will issue a service credit for the remaining period of your current billing cycle.”

ZiMetro has confirmed that numerous users in Zimbabwe have received this email. One user we spoke to mentioned that their terminal is still operational, but they anticipate its imminent deactivation.

The notice implies that Starlink is aware that these devices were purchased, registered, and activated for use in Zimbabwe, as it does not mention the requirement to return the terminals to their country of origin.

To access Starlink, Zimbabweans typically purchase kits from unofficial importers who source them from countries where the service is legally available, such as Mozambique, Zambia, and Eswatini. Prices for these kits range from approximately $600 to $1500, depending on the seller. Setting up the kit is generally straightforward, and to use it in Zimbabwe, users configure their accounts for roaming.

The cost of unlimited internet from Starlink, including roaming, is around US $38, a fraction of the price charged by the country’s local internet providers, which typically exceed US $140 for an unlimited package. Additionally, Starlink’s appeal lies in its ability to provide connectivity even in the most remote areas of the country, where traditional infrastructure is lacking.

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A source familiar with internet services in Zimbabwe estimates that there are approximately 5,000 Starlink terminals in the country.

In 2023, POTRAZ issued a statement declaring the use of Starlink illegal in Zimbabwe. Despite this, Zimbabweans continued to use the service, leading to a thriving black market for terminals.

Under pressure to explain why a seemingly beneficial service was banned, POTRAZ stated that they had no objections to licensing Starlink as long as the company complied with the country’s laws, including payment of fees and taxes, as well as allowing government access to monitor internet traffic or disable the service if necessary. Licensed operators in Zimbabwe adhere to these requirements, contributing to the high cost of internet in the country.

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POTRAZ reiterated that while Starlink had expressed interest in regularizing its operations in Zimbabwe, the company had not obtained the necessary license. At least two customers of Starlink were reportedly arrested this year for using the service.

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One question arises as to why Starlink would comply with POTRAZ’s demand if the regulatory authority technically cannot deactivate the service. While it remains uncertain whether Starlink will indeed proceed with the disconnections, typically, unless in extreme circumstances, a company would prefer to cooperate with a government in a market where it intends to operate in the future.

If Starlink aims to tap into the potential market of 4 million Zimbabwean households seeking internet connections, it is in their interest to collaborate with the government rather than antagonize it.

Earlier this year, Starlink reportedly deactivated between 300 and 400 devices in South Africa, citing improper operation by users obtained through an unofficial third party, Startsat.

There were also reports last month suggesting that users, possibly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, experienced shutdowns similar to those in Zimbabwe.

It is conceivable that other governments observing these actions may consider similar measures, potentially leading to more shutdown orders in the future.

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