Access to the internet and Starlink debate in Zimbabwe

Over the last two weeks, there have been debates on the need for the government to license Starlink in order to improve the country’s internet connectivity and access.

This is understandable given the fact that internet connectivity has been a nightmare in the past few months, yet the price of data continues to increase.

This opinion shall ask the questions — what is Starlink?

What is the role of the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz)?

What is the debate surrounding Starlink and Potraz? Does Zimbabwe need Starlink and why? Is the government willing to license Starlink?

What is Starlink?

It is a satellite internet constellation being constructed by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk. It aims to provide global broadband internet coverage from space.

What is Potraz?

Potraz is the regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe’s postal and telecommunications sector.

The debate surrounding Starlink and Potraz?

There have been reports that Starlink showed interest in providing its internet services in Zimbabwe but faced a hurdle which is Potraz.

It is believed that Potraz denied Starlink to offer its services in Zimbabwe on the basis that they have no licence to do so.  Potraz have denied these allegations, arguing Starlink never applied for a license to operate in Zimbabwe.

In terms of Section 34 (1) of the Postal and Telecommunications Act (Chapter 12:05) no person shall provide a telecommunication service or operate a telecommunication system except in accordance with a telecommunication licence.

This means that without a licence, one cannot provide telecommunication service (the internet included) or operate a telecommunication system.

Currently, as it stands Starlink does not have a licence henceforth it cannot operate in Zimbabwe.

Potraz has claimed that its doors are open for Starlink to operate in Zimbabwe subject to Zimbabwean laws, but has it really?

With the development of technology and with the internet being close to being considered a basic human right the government ought to fully commit itself to ensuring universal and affordable internet connectivity for all citizens.

Potraz has expressed that it has no intention to block Starlink but is simply awaiting an application from the company.

This means that for Starlink to legally operate in Zimbabwe it has to acquire a licence from Potraz. It has to abide by Potraz regulations.

It has been suggested, as an alternative, that Starlink can partner with a registered public network in the country to distribute the service or require its users to apply for private network licenses.

Potraz has illegalised the services that are currently being provided by Starlink. This is in terms of Section 34 (3) of the Act which makes it an offense to operate without a licence.

 It has also gone as far as stating that anyone found using Starlink in Zimbabwe will be in breach of the law and will face the consequences.

 It also threatened to arrest individuals and businesses found distributing and advertising Starlink Internet services’ equipment.

A number of individuals have already been arrested and prosecuted for using Starlink.

This raises a question as to under which law are they being charged? Under which grounds are they arresting people that use, distribute and advertise Starlink services? This law has been also described as out of touch and easy to break.

 The law should be clear and not ambiguous, it should clearly state that using and or advertising unlicenced telecommunication services attracts a criminal liability.

There is a need for rational policy making when it comes to a service as basic as internet access. Of all the things to criminalize, buying reliable internet should not be one of them.

 Just because the government prefers fibre optic internet to satellite should not be a basis upon which the government makes decisions.

 If they are criminalising the use of Starlink does it mean the government is threatened by Starlink or they are genuinely concerned about national security?

Looking at the opportunities that Starlink can offer, the approach by Potraz is quite stringent. Starlink is capable of bridging the digital divide that is currently gripping the country. There will be no need for internet infrastructure, which is costly and internet access will be made cheaper and affordable for all. Starlink is capable of promoting competition in the telecommunication market.

The local internet service providers (ISPs) have been coasting and the formal introduction of Starlink will force them to tweak things to survive.

The ISPs in honest truth offer the citizens raw deals and poor services, even after considering the terrible economic conditions they are operating in. 

There is therefore the need for Zimbabwean ISPs to compete with Starlink in order to improve their services.

This is not to disregard the regulations that Starlink ought to obtain a licence but it is about the flexibility of the regulation.

The talk of Starlink obtaining a license has been ongoing since last year. How hard can it be to obtain one? Is SpaceX refusing or willfully neglecting to oblige with the regulations of Potraz?

Is the government willing to grant a licence to Starlink?

Despite the good that comes with Starlink, the government is still unwilling to grant licence to Starlink, despite their remarks that they have no problem with Starlink operating in Zimbabwe provided that they obtain the licence to do so.

Notably if Starlink was to be allowed to operate in Zimbabwe there will be a need for lawmakers to enact new laws and regulations that will regulate space internet.

Are the law makers ready or were they also caught off-guard by this immense technological development?

This could be one of the reasons why Potraz is reluctant to allow Starlink to operate in Zimbabwe.

Could it be the fear that is influencing the decisions of Potraz?

Taking into account that Starlink is a satellite operator, there will be no need to build internet infrastructure meaning that there will be no employment as well.

 Current Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Econet employ a good number of people and introducing Starlink may rob some people of their jobs.

If Starlink is also allowed Zimra will be receiving less tax as compared to the ones they receive from the local ISPs.

If some ISPs decide to bow out that would mean they will not need to pay any licence fees which cost a fortune. Fewer players to licence would mean less revenue collected.

SpaceX is a foreign company and this translates to Starlink to be foreign as well.

This means that Zimbabwe will be shipping the little forex it has to Starlink. Zimbabwe’s legal tender is zw$ making UDS scarce for most parts of the country.

 This will mean that like any other ISPs, SpaceX will have to accept the currency of Zimbabwe.

Allowing Starlink to operate in Zimbabwe poses national and or cyber-security threats given that it is foreign and operates in space.

There have been reports that Starlink is being used by the IS to spy on countries like Russia, China and Iraq.

To add on, realising that if Starlink was to be welcomed the government will not be able to control it and order internet shutdowns.

This could be another reason why the government is reluctant to grant Starlink the licence to operate in Zimbabwe.

*Mlondolozi Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean media practitioner, trainer and researcher. He is a law student at the University of Zimbabwe.

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