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Will Satellites Bridge Africa’s Internet Connectivity?

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Sonny Aragba-Akpore
Sonny Aragba-Akpore

While terrestrial infrastructure and mobile networks seem to dominate the realm of broadband internet connectivity, satellite operators have elevated the standard by extending services to numerous unserved and underserved communities across Africa. Currently, there are no fewer than 21 satellite operators in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) zones providing connectivity services.

Satellite operators play a pivotal role in fostering development in the world’s most remote and economically challenged regions where the absence of terrestrial infrastructure and mobile networks hampers connectivity and the associated socio-economic benefits. However, the high acquisition costs remain a significant challenge, despite the considerable advantages it offers.

With only a third of Africa’s population having internet access and 21 out of nearly 25 globally poorly covered countries located in Africa, satellite operators aim to bridge the connectivity gap. Although voice communications show a steady rise, internet access remains a challenge in parts of Africa, hindering the realisation of its full potential.

Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa lead in connectivity, boasting high levels in both internet and voice communications. In these countries, the average revenue per user (ARPU) remains encouraging for network providers. However, satellite operators are eager to make a difference, particularly in the most remote parts of the continent.

The EMEA Satellite Operators Association serves as a unifying platform for all satellite operators actively providing communication solutions to the African continent. In much of Africa, terrestrial and mobile networks are concentrated around urban centres, leaving thousands of rural and remote citizens and businesses without voice, let alone data and connectivity.

Records highlight a stark reality in Africa – more than 100 million people lack access to communications. In Nigeria alone, despite efforts by the regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), over 20 million people remain without any network coverage. However, the potential of a single satellite to provide ubiquitous communications over one-third of the Earth’s surface offers a glimmer of hope.

Presently, satellite communications cover the entirety of Africa, primarily operating in C, Ku, and Ka frequency bands, delivering affordable, reliable, and robust services across the continent. This technological advancement grants Africa immediate access to some of the world’s most advanced technologies, including broadband connectivity and 3G communications, often taken for granted in developed countries. Notably, countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana and South Africa have already embraced 4G and 5G communications.

In an effort to provide essential services, satellite operators have ventured into various sectors, such as education, telecommunications, agriculture, hospitality services, logistics and telemedicine. The impact is significant, enabling multiple applications and services that significantly enhance the welfare of African citizens.

Members of the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), now transformed into the Global Satellite Operators Association (GSOA), play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide. They provide tools that empower African countries to enhance democratic processes, civil governance, infrastructure development, education access, healthcare management and cultural revitalisation.

The association emphasises the transformative role of satellite communications in education, especially in remote and rural areas. Recognising the challenge of inadequate teaching standards leading to functional illiteracy among children in many African countries, the GSOA stresses the importance of training both pre-service and in-service teachers on new curricula.

eLearning through satellite communications emerges as a solution, facilitating a fast, cost-effective process that ensures high-quality standards everywhere, even in areas without terrestrial networks.

However, challenges arise in an era dominated by private space companies, where the costs of satellite communications create exclusivity for operators in certain regions. Disruptive technologies introduced by non-state space actors, exemplified by Elon Musk’s Starlink, further complicate the landscape. Starlink’s recent licensing in Nigeria, coupled with its global footprint, raises concerns about the disruptive agenda impacting players, especially in Africa, where private sector participation is still evolving.

Worries intensified regarding Nigeria’s underutilised NIGCOMSAT 1R, launched in 2011 with a 15-year lifespan. With no backup satellites, questions loom about the country’s future in satellite communications. The emergence of multi-orbit operations, encompassing Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and traditional geostationary orbit, prompts queries about the availability and affordability of satellite broadband.

Acknowledging Nigeria’s inability to compete effectively, especially without a backup, the concerns surrounding downtime and customer reluctance highlight the need for strategic planning and technological advancements to navigate the evolving landscape of satellite communications.

Communication satellites have played a pivotal role in enhancing connectivity in various regions of Africa, showcasing their versatility and impact across sectors. Several examples illustrate how satellite technology has been leveraged to address challenges and foster development.

In Nigeria, Inmarsat, in collaboration with international partners such as Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), Praekelt Foundation, SURE-P and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, initiated a project aimed at delivering maternal and child health services to 50 rural communities that were both physically and technologically disconnected. Portable satellite Wi-Fi hubs facilitated access to online health information from MAMA, improving maternal and child health outcomes. This public-private partnership, initiated in 2015, has reached over two million women, families and caregivers across various low and middle-income countries.

The importance of reliable and affordable telecommunications for economic growth in Africa is underscored by the need for accessible financial services. In Kenya, satellite companies partnered with banks to extend reliable access to banking services. Inmarsat, collaborating with Equity Bank Group in 2015, facilitated the delivery of financial services to 200 sites across Kenya, including remote areas. The initiative aimed to enhance financial inclusion for the unbanked and unconnected, with local agents leveraging connectivity for additional data-based services, thereby expanding business opportunities.

Satellite technology played a crucial role in Burkina Faso’s Presidential Election, where SES collaborated with the Commission Electorale Nationale Independante (CENI) and other key partners to provide a satellite broadband solution. This facilitated secure digital transmission of electoral results from over 18,000 polling offices to the central CENI center in Ouagadougou, utilizing satellite services at 368 electoral offices.

In Ghana, the implementation of the instructional leadership programme for headteachers in eastern Ghana showcases the transformative potential of satellite multicasting. The project, supported by satellite technology, trains head teachers to become instructional leaders through distance learning. The aim is to improve teaching practices, enhance subject knowledge, create equitable classroom environments, and establish a more accountable monitoring system for teaching quality.

Satellite operator Rascomstar independently addressed the connectivity challenges in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by bringing mobile telephony to remote villages. These villages, lacking stable electricity and GSM coverage, became connected through the deployment of satellite infrastructure. Despite low population density making it commercially unviable for mobile network operators, Rascomstar took on the cost of installing towers, solar panels, BTS, and GSM antennas. This initiative had an immediate social impact, allowing residents to make calls globally, with initial users including doctors, teachers, and local businessmen.

While these examples showcase the positive impact of satellite technology, challenges persist in the rapidly evolving landscape of telecommunications. The transformative potential of satellites is evident, but questions arise about the affordability and availability of satellite broadband, particularly with the emergence of multi-orbit operations and disruptive technologies introduced by private companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink. Strategic planning and technological advancements are essential for countries like Nigeria, facing uncertainties about the continuity of their satellite communications capabilities and the potential risks associated with disruptive innovations in the industry. Despite these challenges, the demonstrated successes underscore the immense potential of communication satellites in bridging connectivity gaps and fostering development across Africa.

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