Vodacom Group inks a deal with Elon Musk’s Starlink orbit to boost telco’s 4G and 5G expansion plan
Vodacom has entered into a partnership deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX-owned satellite internet provider, Starlink.
The partnership will the telco to expand its portfolio to include serving individuals, residential places, and businesses via customer terminals. This puts it in direct competition with Starlink, across a major section of its African footprint.
Vodacom will leverage Amazon’s constellation of 3,236 satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) to connect cellular antennas in ‘geographically dispersed locations’ to its core telecom networks, under Amazon’s initiative, Project Kuiper.
The South African-based telco said the partnership gives it the ability to offer 4G/5G services in more locations without the time and expense of building out fiber-based or fixed wireless links back to the core networks – shifting the war into a race for customer numbers.
“Collaborating with Project Kuiper gives us an exciting new path to scale our efforts, using Amazon’s satellite constellation to quickly reach more customers across the African continent,” said Vodacom Group Chief Executive Officer, Shameel Joosub in a joint statement.
Barely three months ago, Vodacom through its parent company Vodafone, disclosed plans for a direct-to-smartphone satellite service that connects mobile phones to a data service without a modem, in a partnership with Texas-based AST SpaceMobile. Starlink is also planning to venture into this space, having planned tests with T-Mobile in the US, and it is still unclear when or if the service will be expanded to Africa.
GSMA’s State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2022 shows the mobile coverage gap (areas not covered or connected) has reduced by more than 50% to 190 million people and usage (covered but not connected) by 14% to 680 million people over the last five years.
Mobile broadband investments have helped the region improve its network quality, with the biggest improvement seen in narrowing of the gap between 3G and 4G coverage from 45% in 2017 to 25% in 2021.
Despite these developments, Africa’s coverage gaps remain the largest in the world according to GSMA, due to slow growth in internet speeds and high cost of data, especially in the Sahara region.
“Network quality continues to improve, but download speeds are yet to exceed 10Mbps … Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the cost of 1GB of data as a percentage of monthly GDP per capita exceeds 2%,” said GSMA in the report.
The widest coverage gaps are in Central Africa, where 39% of the region’s population lives outside a mobile broadband coverage area, followed by West Africa (16%), East Africa (13%) and Southern Africa (12%).
In March 2023, Amazon unveiled a set of satellite receivers under Project Kuiper, targeting tens of millions of customers with customer terminals that will cost less than US$500.
Amazon’s smallest portable satellite terminal, offering speeds of up to 100Mbps, will be sold for US $100, while its standard customer terminal will go for less than US$400.
Vodafone, Vodacom, and Project Kuiper have also announced exploring a provision for backup services in case of unexpected events as well as connectivity expansion for remote infrastructure, as they prepare to test two prototype satellites with select customers by the end of 2024.
Vodacom operates in South Africa, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, with more than 185 million customers.
Starlink, with 1.5 million subscribers, offers – through its Roam and Residential subscriptions – a more expensive service, starting at US$600.
The company’s satellite internet is also available in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Mozambique. By year-end, the company is eyeing Chad, Mauritania, Angola, Namibia, and Somalia. It is yet to get a license to operate in South Africa.