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Starlink will change satellite Internet in South Africa and take on fibre

The imminent arrival of Starlink and other new innovative low earth orbit (LEO) satellite services will radically change perceptions about the feasibility of satellite Internet in South Africa.

This is according to Q-KON CEO Dawie De Wet, who recently spoke to MyBroadband regarding the impact Starlink would have on current local satellite Internet services.

“The number one and most important is that it will greatly drive the general awareness and positive view of end-users and general public towards satellite as a leading broadband technology,” De Wet said.

“The market will realise that the satellite industry is fundamentally changing and that new innovations are opening up new options and alternatives,” De Wet said.

SpaceX’s Starlink service is scheduled to go live in South Africa in 2022, and it has already opened pre-orders to users who wish to secure priority for the required equipment on its website.

The service currently offers fast, low-latency, uncapped Internet at $99 (R1,444) per month.

De Wet said that Starlink and similar services will alter the satellite landscape rather than just being new competitors.

“Starlink will create completely new markets and open up completely new sectors and end-user groups. This will by far supersede what the market of the current satellite ISPs offers,” De Wet said.

How it’s different

Starlink is technologically different from conventional satellite broadband services in operation today.

Current deployments rely on satellites that orbit around 13,000km above the earth’s surface, which allow the satellite to be geostationary – meaning it is always above the same part of the earth.

While this great altitude offers a wide area of coverage per satellite, the significant distance is bad news for latency, with an average of 594-624 ms in connections.

This means satellite Internet is not suited for applications that require low latency, such as gaming and live video conferencing.

By contrast, Starlink’s fleet consists of more than a thousand smaller low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that are operating at an altitude of around 550km.

The reduced distance means latency is cut down significantly, with 95% of early beta users reporting round-trip times of 31ms.

In addition, Starlink’s has applied for 5 million user terminals in the US alone, meaning it likely anticipates its constellation will have large enough bandwidth to support millions more users across the globe.

Early tests have shown speeds of between 50Mbps and 150Mbps, significantly faster than most commercial broadband satellite services.

This makes Starlink a feasible option for broadband users which require access to fast Internet and high amounts of data.

Amazon is also planning to launch a similar service with its Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 LEO satellites. Its fleet is expected to be deployed between 2026 and 2029.

Comparing with current options

We compared the Starlink service with current uncapped satellite broadband packages in South Africa.

While its once-off installation cost is significantly more expensive than the others, Starlink’s monthly price of $99 (R1,444) is very affordable considering the competition.

Its nearest competitor in terms of speed is the Max Unlimited 50 product from Maxwell Paratus at R2,449 per month.

It should be noted, however, that this product has a Fair Usage Policy (FUP) of 200GB, after which download speeds are throttled to 15Mbps. L

Latency is also much worse, with a claimed 650ms compared to Starlink’s 20-40ms.

The closest competitor from YahClick is its 20Mbps package, which is available on a 24-month contract from either Vox or Morclick at R1,299 or R1,399, respectively.

While these are cheaper than Starlink, they also come with an FUP of 200GB, after which download speeds are slashed in half.

The table below shows a comparison between Starlink and current uncapped satellite home broadband packages in South Africa.

Military-grade tech

This begs the question – if Starlink’s technique is superior to conventional satellite broadband, why is it only being used now?

Linus Tech Tips has pointed out one of the technologies Starlink is using in the user’s dish is typically reserved for military-grade applications.

It employs hundreds of small antennae in order to be able to always communicate with satellites that are moving in and out of the operational area above it.

This is only one part of the equation, however, and Starlink’s satellites also use never-before-seen radio communication technologies.

Changing the market

De Wet said that the metrics of the Starlink business case is completely different from previous global LEO projects and that this achievement in engineering and business innovation will change all past and future perceptions and assumptions.

“Although there is still widespread concern about the feasibility of the global constellations, linked to the development of an affordable user terminal, these aspects are drafted when considering the reference and wide scale of the Starlink and Space X environment,” De Wet said.

He stated that Starlink was not new to Q-KON and the company was ready for the step-change in the market.

“Q-KON has a wide network or field partners and channel resellers who are supporting our current portfolio and who are also well positioned to support new emerging LEO services,” De Wet said.

“Also interesting to note is that the original FCC filing positions Starlink as a point-to-point service similar to fibre and that Starlink might be more of a force in the fibre connectivity market than in the current satellite broadband market,” De Wet said.

“When consideration design aspects relating to some core technologies elements further supports this hypothesis.  This is also reflected in the positioning and business case scenarios of other LEO and MEO network operators.”

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