On February 24, Minister of Information Gospel Kazako informed Parliament that the government was going to roll out a new initiative to improve connectivity and accelerate acquisition of ICT knowledge and skills, especially among the youth.
The Connect a School Programme would replace the one which has been discontinued.
In addition to the challenges Kazako highlighted, the telecentres faced numerous setbacks that affected their viability for the long term, including inadequate telecommunications infrastructure and high cost of installation and subscription.
(1) Installation costs
High cost of installation need not be a big issue.
A full Starlink installation kit costs $600 (K468 000), excluding shipping. This is lower than the average cost of internet installation for a corporate client in Malawi at over K500 000.
From a capacity of 200Mbps, a small school or college can build out a local area network (LAN) to provide internet for both staff and students.
There are plenty of affordable open systems on the market which can be used to build the whole network for less than $1 000.
At K468 000 per installation, this high-speed internet would cost no more than K50 million in equipment to deploy to any 100 schools countrywide.
The good news is that SpaceX is already looking into developing cheaper user terminals that should cost not more than $200 (K156 000) each.
This could bring the installation cost down to not more than K250 000, including the first monthly subscription fee.
(2) Subscription fees
The Internet remains expensive in Malawi. A capacity of 1Mbps costs at least $100 per month, but can hardly endure two devices streaming YouTube at the same time.
To double that capacity means paying nearly twice the monthly subscription fee, but still falling short of the ideal capacity for a school or any active group of users.
Starlink, at 200Mbps, unlimited, for $99 per month is affordable by nearly all public schools in the country.
In addition, Starlink aims to deliver an insanely high-capacity to the user (10Gbps), so, the cost of connectivity is expected to decrease by a very large factor.
Installation of telecentres was a challenge in off-grid places such as Likoma and Neno.
However, since a Starlink installation does not depend on a lot of ground-based telecommunications infrastructure, it is as easy to install on Likoma Island as it is in suburban Blantyre.
What can the Ministry of Information do about it?
Starlink is running a beta services programme in North America and Europe. Many parts of the world are earmarked for 2022. Malawi is one of them.
All this information is available on the Starlink website.
Some early birds in Malawi have already pre-ordered installation kits for 2022 delivery.
As the number of Starlink satellites in the sky grows and its network gets better, demand for its internet will rise.
Some powerful countries have already taken notice.
The US and Canadian governments, for example, have made huge bets on Starlink.
Last December, the US government awarded SpaceX nearly $900 million (K702 billion) worth of subsidies to support bringing internet to rural areas through Starlink.
Canada approved SpaceX’s application for a license to operate Starlink as a telecom in the country. Indonesia has offered SpaceX an island on which to build a launchpad for the rockets it uses to send satellites into space.
This is a great opportunity for Malawi to solve rural connectivity problems with little investment.
It is also an opportunity to fundamentally change the telecommunications sector in favour of the poor and digitally marginalised.
Kazako’s ministry could roll out research on the viability of Starlink as a solution to rural connectivity problems.
Whatever the decision, this window of opportunity will not stay open forever.
If the opportunity is not seized now, profiteers will step in. It would be a great injustice if that happened.