• Clear signals

    Satellite services may hold the solution to achieving affordable, accessible internet connectivity across Africa’s underserved areas.

    Clear signals

    Discussions around African internet connectivity have typically focused on fibre roll-out and mobile internet – the trendy topics surrounded by popular hype.

    But service providers are increasingly singing the praises of satellite connectivity – an area in which the technology is developing fast.

    Satellite services have traditionally been the luxury of business clients with the finances available to pay for a dedicated satellite channel – with prices for a dedicated multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) channel in the region of more than US$4 000 per month.

    However, as new technologies and innovative packages emerge, service providers say satellite connectivity is now accessible to consumers spanning all verticals, from healthcare and education providers, through to government and NGOs, as well as small businesses and home users.

    In the context of Africa’s varied markets – many still underserved owing to their rural locations – the suggestion is that satellite services have evolved to the point of offering a viable solution to the continent’s connectivity obstacles.

    Satellite broadband provider Yahsat is active across Africa, and recently announced the launch of a third satellite, the Al Yah 3, due in 2016.

    Yahsat currently provides services to nine countries in Africa but with the third satellite in operation, the company’s coverage will expand to a further 18 countries – bringing Yahsat’s offerings to 27 countries in Africa.

    Yahsat says the new satellite will heighten the company’s ability to provide connectivity in all the ‘right’ places in Africa – including remote areas that are typically excluded from other forms of internet access.

    Chief commercial officer of Yahsat David Murphy highlights the important role that internet access has in driving socio-economic growth, and says the company wants its satellites to contribute to closing the digital divide in Africa.

    ‘The new satellite will offer simple, cost-effective, high-speed satellite broadband service to the right places, even in remote parts of Africa, using the right business model and partnerships,’ says Murphy.

    The popularity of and demand for satellite services – particularly in small and less-populated areas – are growing

    ‘It is in line with our goal to encourage social and economic development by providing people with a platform to access information, enabling them to enter the digital sharing age as well as facilitate business to expand their network and help create jobs.’

    According to Murphy, the roll-out of fixed-line infrastructure across rural and remote parts of Africa will be a long, slow process, and even in areas where fixed services are available, they are often unreliable. As such, he says satellite is the solution to providing immediate universal connectivity to countries in Africa.

    ‘A lack of infrastructure remains a barrier to widespread internet connectivity in many countries. While a strong network of underwater cables are being built, it will take years for connectivity to be available and even then, there are potential issues,’ says Murphy.

    ‘For countries in Africa to sustain economic growth and development, all communities need to be connected, and this is of particular importance to communities based in more remote regions,’ he says.

    ‘In order to support African countries to grow and develop, Yahsat believes satellite broadband internet is the way forward while governments finalise traditional infrastructure plans.’

    Better known for its efforts in fibre roll-out in Africa, Liquid Telecom initially started out as a satellite service provider in 2004 and has been providing wholesale satellite connectivity since then.

    Liquid Telecom’s satellite services are now complemented by the much talked about fibre side of the company’s operations. The two together enable the company to provide universal coverage across Africa.

    ‘There is no part of Africa that we can’t reach,’ says Liquid Telecom’s head of satellite services Scott Mumford. ‘Satellite enables us to connect the more remote areas where it is simply not cost-effective or practical to lay fibre.’

    While Mumford concedes that satellite is a technology used where fibre cannot feasibly be provided, he says the popularity of and demand for satellite services – particularly in small and less-populated areas – are growing.

    The feedback from providers is unanimous – satellite has a critical role to play in improving internet connectivity in remote areas of Africa and, as a result, closing the digital divide.

    Dan Zajicek, CEO of Gilat Satcom – which provides satellite services to more than 20 countries in Africa – says that bringing stable internet to rural areas should be the priority for all stakeholders in the immediate future. He also says satellite is the most cost-effective and reliable means of connecting these remote areas.

    ‘The main priority in the short and long term is rural development. Connecting rural Africa to the internet will make a huge difference to the African continent in the upcoming years,’ says Zajicek.

    Satellite options are now entering the range where they become accessible to both enterprise and domestic customers

    The cost of satellite services to the end consumer is often cited as a hindering factor to the uptake of satellite as a broadband access channel, particularly so in rural and remote areas – which often also coincide with low-income segments of the population.

    However, Yahsat’s Murphy says satellite services can increasingly be provided at an affordable price point, citing the example of Yahsat’s Yahclick package, provided in South Africa by Vox Telecom.

    The service is available at below ZAR800 – including everything from hardware, service plan, through to a Vox Supafone to make calls – and guarantees 99.5% uptime, which he says is favourable when compared to other broadband alternatives on the market.

    Yahclick has been proven to work in rural areas and with local populations, with more than 3 000 farmers in remote areas of South Africa happy with the facility. Murphy says this shows the potential of satellite to provide the broadband services in demand, and at an accessible price.

    Liquid Telecom agrees that the price of satellite services is coming down as providers implement innovative packages and bundles, and says satellite options are now entering the range where they become accessible to both enterprise and domestic customers.

    While Liquid Telecom used to charge US$4 250 per month for a dedicated MPLS channel, the company in 2014 became the first provider in Africa to offer a shared MPLS service.

    The new, shared MPLS packages start at US$55 per month for a basic 1 MB unlimited capacity package and are now available in every country in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Zajicek also disputes the suggestion that the cost of satellite connectivity is prohibitive to consumers, and counters that in fact, satellite is becoming the most cost-effective means of providing internet in rural areas.

    ‘Satellite plays a major role in bringing connectivity to rural Africa as it is the most cost-effective technology for rural development in Africa. It is already affordable and in use as a domestic product. Satellite will not compete with the price of fibre but can be purchased as a domestic product in all sorts of bundle packages,’ he says.

    Prices for satellite connectivity will continue to decrease, says Zajicek, with the growth in prevalence of high throughput satellite technology – a solution providing a much higher throughput than traditional technology, thus greatly reducing the cost per bit, as hardware prices fall and market demand expands.

    Liquid Telecom admits its work in fibre broadband is much more high profile, and sparks greater interest than its original satellite services. The company puts this down to the scale of its fibre roll-out being ‘ground-breaking’, and says media interest serves to drive mass interest in fibre connectivity.

    However, the company concedes the cost and time constraints of fibre roll-out make it unlikely that fibre connectivity will be the key to achieving universal internet access in Africa – especially in rural areas.

    On the contrary, all providers agree that satellite is a real contender to answer the need for rural connectivity on the continent. As the technologies improve and costs decrease, the service providers say satellite is quietly emerging as the less-hyped – but potentially effective – solution to providing universal connectivity in Africa.

    By Gabriella Mulligan
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages