Connectivity to the Masses: Satellites for Africa

o3b satellites africa

Africa’s demand for bandwidth is doubling every year, outpacing the laying of terrestrial telecom fibre links and encouraging commercial satellite operators to launch more units into orbit.   The arrival of submarine cables on Africa’s eastern shore just five years ago (see e.g. Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy)) was largely expected to herald the end of satellite connections, which had been the region’s only link to the outside world for decades.  But the opposite is happening with Africa’s political geography – notably its many landlocked countries, such as Zambia, South Sudan and Rwanda – bringing undersea cable plans back to earth.

“If you are to provide connectivity to the masses, fibre is not the way to do it. Do you think that it would make economical sense to take fibre to every village in Kenya?” said Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, a senior executive for Africa at Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES SA “Satellite is still around and will continue to be around because it’s the best medium to extend connectivity to the masses.”  Hundreds of millions of people on the continent still have no access to the Internet, he said….

SES, one of the world’s largest commercial satellite operators, expects to launch its Astra2G satellite in 2014 after sending three others dedicated to Africa into orbit in the last year. Nine of its 56 satellites orbiting the earth are allocated for Africa.  Europe’s biggest satellite operator Eutelsat plans to fire off its tri-band EUTELSAT 3B this month after launching another to extend sub-Saharan Africa coverage in 2013.

The demand for Internet and data services in Africa has been driven by affordable mobile broadband connections. Mobile broadband users could grow by nearly eight times to 806 million by the end of 2018, according to Informa estimates.  New services such as digital television, onboard Internet connection for passenger aircraft, and delivering education and health services electronically will also drive demand.

The private sector has several initiatives to extend the capacity from submarine cables inland using terrestrial cables, but until that bottleneck is addressed, satellite operators are innovating to plug that black hole. One operator, O3B, or Other 3 Billion, has launched four of the next-generation medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites and plans two other launches in 2014 to make an orbital constellation of 12.  At a height of 8,000 kms (5,000 miles), the MEO units allow for faster speeds than traditional stationary satellites at 36,000 kms.  O3B’s tests have delivered capacity five times better than what traditional satellites can manage, making its technology suitable for both voice and interactive applications, said Omar Trujillo, vice president for Africa and Latin America….”A lot of applications for mining, oil and gas, will continue to be done by satellite,” he said. “The main market may not be international links for Nairobi or Johannesburg but will be communication for some of these remote areas that have had very low demand before, but now have fast-growing demand.

Excerpts from Helen Nyambura-MwauraAFRICA INVESTMENT-Africa’s hunger for data sends satellites into orbit, Reuters, Apr. 17, 2014

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