Starlink is coming to Africa, but who will use it?

Elon Musk’s Starlink has a dream
Elon Musk’s Starlink has a dream
Image: Reuters/Nacho Doce
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Sometime between July and September this year, Starlink expects to go live in two African countries: Nigeria, and Mozambique.

The SpaceX-owned service, which provides internet connectivity using thousands of satellites in space, announced on May 27 that it has received regulatory approvals from both countries. Nigeria gave Starlink two licenses that took effect on May 1 and will expire in 2027 and 2032. The service is registered as an entity in the Victoria Island area of Lagos state.

After securing the approvals, Starlink is asking consumers to order installation kits by making a $99 deposit. Some enthusiasts, like the tech YouTuber Fisayo Fosudo, have obliged, eager to see what it delivers.

Can rural “unconnected users” really afford this service?

Starlink targets rural “unconnected” users

Starlink is “ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable,” per its website. Where digital banks want to “bank the unbanked,” Starlink wants to “connect the unconnected.”

It’s a good idea on paper for places where internet service providers are slow in extending their masts to rural communities for access to high-speed internet. Typically, those companies are concerned about recovering investments from low-income, low-frequency users, worried about the cost of operations and maintenance (telcos like MTN run diesel generators round-the-clock at their base stations in Nigeria), and fear the cost of repairs after vandalism or theft.

On the contrary, Starlink users everywhere will share the same infrastructure in space.

Each can theoretically access the internet by owning a dish mounted outdoors at a spot exposed to clear skies. That could solve access challenges in countries like Mozambique where only 16% of a population of 31 million people use the internet. Part of the fault lies with infrastructure that is at a third of the required level, according to GSMA’s mobile connectivity index.

Starlink’s 100 Mbps download speed is nearly five times higher than the highest median download speed recorded in Nigeria for fixed broadband between January and March this year. The average download speed for mobile internet in sub-Saharan Africa was 9 Mbps (pdf) in 2020.

Access to Starlink begins with affordability 

Yet, Starlink may be too expensive for its ‘ideal’ rural consumers in Africa.

After a price review in March, it now costs a one-time fee of $599 (formerly $499) for the dish and router, and $110 (formerly $99) for a monthly subscription. A premium product tier costs $2,500 for installation and $500 in monthly fees.

Squared against 40% poverty rates in Nigeria and Mozambique, an annual outlay of $1,919 for (first-time) users in rural areas looks rather optimistic. The average annual living wage in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is around 518,400 naira ($864).

Already, sub-Saharan Africans spend the highest proportion of monthly income on smartphones, the chief means for accessing existing internet services. Where the global average is 26%, it is 45% in the region. In the US, Canada, and European countries where Starlink is currently active, the average user does not have device affordability problems on Africa’s scale.

Will Starlink adopt different pricing strategies in Africa and least developed countries, the way Netflix does? It remains to be seen.

Otherwise, those who can afford Starlink would appear to be urban, socially upward people like Fosudo, who already had access to the internet anyway. And even for people like him, Starlink is costly.