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  • Why POTRAZ Can't Self-Disable Starlink Terminals

    Why POTRAZ Can't Self-Disable Starlink Terminals
    Author
  • Washington Mkombodzi
  • Staff Writer
  • Posted Apr 13, 2024
  • The ongoing regulatory issue between Starlink, the satellite internet division of SpaceX, and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), has raised questions about the authority's ability to disable or shut down Starlink user terminals within the country. As it turns out, POTRAZ does not have the technical capability to unilaterally disable Starlink user terminals from their end. This article delves into the reasons behind this limitations

    Independent Satellite Network

    Starlink operates a unique decentralized network of satellites that provide internet coverage to its users on the ground. Unlike traditional internet providers (econet, liquid, netone, telecel, utande) that rely on centralized infrastructure (fiber, base stations), Starlink's satellites are spread across low-earth orbit, forming a constellation. Each user has their own terminal, also known as a user terminal or dish, which directly communicates with the satellites passing overhead.

    The control over these user terminals and the satellite network lies under the centralized management of Starlink's network operations. This means POTRAZ does not possess the technical capability or authority to interfere with or disable these satellite units. The complex coordination and communication between the user terminals and the satellites occur autonomously within Starlink's network, beyond the scope of POTRAZ's control.

    No Starlink Internet Gateways in Zimbabwe

    In the traditional telecommunications landscape, internet services can be disabled in a country by shutting off gateways or nexus points that connect local networks to the global internet. However, Starlink's satellite internet system operates differently. It does not rely on physical gateways or infrastructure within Zimbabwe to provide internet connectivity.

    Instead, Starlink's user terminals communicate directly with the satellites in orbit, bypassing the need for terrestrial gateways. With this direct connection, the flow of internet service is not dependent on any specific infrastructure within Zimbabwe. Consequently, POTRAZ faces limitations in its ability to block or control the flow of Starlink's internet service within the country.

    Unlike traditional providers where one can target and shut down specific gateways, Starlink's network operates on a global scale, with its satellites covering vast areas and serving users across various countries.

    Attempting to block or control Starlink's service would require POTRAZ to either block or jam the satellite signal. However, this is a technically challenging task due to the constant movement of the satellites across the sky. Jamming or blocking signals could have unintended consequences, potentially disrupting other satellite communications in the region. Moreover, any unilateral attempt to disable user terminals could escalate into an international dispute, as it could be seen as a violation of SpaceX's sovereign rights as a U.S. company operating a global satellite network.

    How Starlink Identifies Terminals in Zimbabwe

    Although POTRAZ lacks the ability to directly disable user terminals, Starlink itself has mechanisms to track and restrict service in specific regions if required. Every Starlink user terminal is equipped with a GPS receiver that continuously tracks its geographical coordinates, providing location data back to Starlink's network operations. By analyzing data points such as IP routing, GPS positioning, Wi-Fi environment, and satellite beam handoffs, Starlink can determine if a user terminal is active within Zimbabwe's borders. The company can then selectively disable service for terminals operating in restricted regions.

    So in essence, while POTRAZ can legally restrict the sale and use of Starlink through regulations within Zimbabwe - they lack the ability to directly disable the service themselves without Starlink's cooperation. This underscores the unique regulatory challenges of satellite internet versus traditional ground-based telecoms.

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