Starlink cut off hundreds of South African users!

Starlink’s blocking of accounts that led to hundreds of customers in South Africa losing Internet access was likely due to a company reselling the SpaceX offering against its terms of service.

That is according to patent attorney Wessel van Wyk of the patent, copyright, and trademark law firm Smit & Van Wyk.

Several Starlink users in South Africa who received their kits from Mozambique-based importer Starsat Africa began complaining about their services being offline in early February 2024.

Starsat subsequently confirmed to MyBroadband that the cutoff impacted 350–400 of its customers.

It said this made up around 10% of its total customer base.

The company offers an import service to various Sub-Saharan African countries — including South Africa — and a management service that handles account sign-up and payments to Starlink.

For the latter, it charges a R1,299 monthly fee, compared to the roughly R700–R900 a customer would pay when paying Starlink directly for an African roaming subscription.

If a customer uses Starsat’s option, the kit they get is not registered to their name or email address, and they don’t get the login details to manage their account.

Starlink dish tested in the Kruger National Park.

Starsat told MyBroadband that the issue Starlink had was that some of Starsat’s customers had resold dishes through companies using Starlink’s branding.

It could not provide the original communication it received from Starlink to confirm this.

The wording of the copied support message the company sent to MyBroadband about Starlink’s reasoning for cutting off Starsat Africa customers was very similar to that of the cease-and-desist letter previously sent to IT LEC, who handed over its customers to Starsat Africa in August 2023.

IT LEC told MyBroadband this decision came after it had been visited by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and served with a separate cease-and-desist letter.

“IT LEC (Pty) Ltd should, within three days of receipt of this letter, stop and refrain [from] acquiring, distributing and facilitating sale of any Starlink products in South Africa, that will in any form provide satellite access to the Starlink services,” the letter stated.

At the time, IT LEC did not disclose to MyBroadband that it had also received the cease-and-desist letter directly from Starlink. This letter is can be viewed here.

While the letter above gave IT LEC 30 days to transfer the accounts to the actual users, Starsat said the notification it received stated that Starlink had cut the services of the impacted accounts with immediate effect.

Van Wyk said although he was not privy to the details of any agreement between Starlink, their clients, or Starsat Africa, he believed the trademark usage was not the real problem.

“It is my opinion that the fundamental issue in this matter is that the supply of goods and services in this instance might have breached the Starlink Terms of Service,” Van Wyk said.

“The trademark violations are an additional remedy that Starlink can use to enforce their rights.”

Van Wyk said that section 2.1 of the Starlink Terms of Service prohibited the purchase of an “excessive number” of units for resale and prohibits the reselling of services provided by Starlink.

A single Starlink account is only able to buy up to six units.

“Although there might be resellers throughout the world, this section can be used by Starlink to prohibit the resale of their hardware or services.

While Starlink does have a list of authorised resellers on its website, these are only able to resell its business kits and packages.

“It seems that the Starlink business model for private households is based on providing the services directly to consumers without third-party intermediaries,” Van Wyk said.

He also pointed to Starlink’s FAQ, which stated that it is unable to activate a service for a dish that had been purchased from an unauthorised reseller.

“Buying Starlink through another third-party company, that is not listed as an authorised reseller or retailer, is a violation of our terms and conditions and subject to immediate suspension of service.”

Wessel van Wyk, patent attorney at Smit & Van Wyk

Van Wyk said because the blocking of the services was a technical enforcement mechanism available to Starlink, it was the only party that could unblock the affected dishes.

“If Starsat Africa has indeed access to the accounts, it should be possible for them to transfer the services directly to their clients,” Van Wyk said.

“If Starsat Africa was not authorised to provide the goods and services and the accounts are blocked, Starsat Africa or their clients should approach Starlink to find a technical remedy to this problem.

“It should be possible for the clients to enter into separate agreements with Starlink that comply with the Starlink Terms of Service.”

Over the past few days, a few Starsat customers started reporting their Starlink connections were working again.

However, Starsat told them that it was still unable to access their accounts to migrate them to be able to deal with Starlink directly.

Rival disputes Starsat’s version of events

In a warning to other providers selling Starlink services with the company’s official branding but not necessarily offering resale, Van Wyk said that Starlink was a registered trademark in South Africa.

Even though it was not yet licensed to operate locally, South Africa’s trademark laws allowed it to enforce its rights in this regard.

Starsat has insisted that the cutoff is due to trademark violations by some of its customers and that it was on a pre-approval list for distributors.

Another company that imports Starlink kits to South Africa and competes with Starsat told MyBroadband there no longer was a pre-approval list in the country.

While this was initially offered, Starlink scrapped it after it changed South Africa’s Starlink’s planned launch date to “unknown”.

In addition to importing kits on locals’ behalf, the rival also helps South African users sign up for the service for a handsome once-off fee.

This is because its sign-up process takes quite a lot of time, as it requires the customer’s own name and details and involvement from start to finish.

The provider only buys individual kits directly from Starlink, uses different Google Plus codes for the service addresses in African countries where Starlink is officially available, and has them delivered to shipping addresses in those same countries, requiring a 4–6 week turnaround time.

As an additional measure, it uses unique payment methods for each customer to ensure Starlink would not link them to a single account.

For its expedited service with next-day delivery, it charges over R10,000 more, because these units were bought off-the-shelf from retailers legally allowed to sold Starlink in European countries.

Article Recourses : MyBroadBand

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