• Launch pad

    It’s all systems go for Africa’s satellite sector, bringing with it enhanced communications and connectivity

    Launch pad

    African Horseback Safaris operates in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Located near Macatoo Camp but miles and miles away from anything else, the company leads guests on guided adventures across more than 180 000 ha of pristine wilderness. Their remote location is their selling point, but it’s a double-edged sword, coming at the cost of being completely cut off from the rest of the world. With no terrestrial communications network available, the company uses high-speed satellite connectivity provided by Twoobii’s smart satellite services.

    André Kock and Son, a livestock auction firm located in out-of-the-way Bela Bela in South Africa’s Limpopo province, has a different challenge. Their operations are spread over various remote areas – and the old two-way radio system has limited range and patchy signal. Again, satellite technology provided a solution, linking two-way radio towers in three different regions to create a single and effective farm communication network spanning multiple radio towers.

    The use cases for satellite connectivity are growing in Africa, as Scott Mumford, CEO of Liquid Satellite, explains. ‘Satellite services have always driven connectivity in Africa,’ he says, adding that ‘satellite services offer a cost-effective and scalable solution, and are primed to fill the connectivity gap – providing coverage in areas where terrestrial services won’t reach. They can enable connectivity of outlying communities, schools, businesses, mines and off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations, bringing the connectivity needed to compete in the global marketplace’.

    Dawie de Wet, group CEO of Q-KON Africa and chief engineer for Twoobii, adds that ‘the very nature of satellite services is the advantage of anywhere, anytime service delivery that is independent of any towers, cables or other network elements. This literally means we can connect customers anywhere in Africa and provide them with first-tier reliable services. Satellite-access service only needs on-site power at the user’s premises. It doesn’t need towers, cables or any other network infrastructure and is the ultimate option for high reliability internet and broadband services’.

    Africa’s banking industry provides another powerful use case for satellite connectivity. ‘For the banking industry we have developed specific application services and developed options for branches, ATMs and point-of-sale requirements,’ says De Wet. ‘While satellite technology provides the underlining reliability, bespoke service engineering and specific application provisioning supplied by our Twoobii smart satellite services is required to ensure a seamless integration with the banking core network, as well as providing the optimum performance-and-cost bundles for the different applications. The service bundles, network quality-of-service and routing requirements are all different for branch back-up services, ATM primary services and point-of-sale primary services.’

    Mumford also points to recent advancements in satellite technology, including the utilisation of multi-orbit satellites and the deployment of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellations. LEO and MEO satellites, he explains, orbit much closer to the Earth than their geostationary counterparts, which results in higher throughputs and faster, lower-latency connectivity for on-the-ground users.

    Global satellite giant Hughes highlights the importance of LEO technology in an African context. Internet penetration in the continent was just 40.2% in 2021, according to the International Telecommunications Union – and while about half of Africa’s urban dwellers are online, only 15% of its rural populations are.

    There’s a development imperative behind reducing these disparities and driving digital transformation – and, according to a Hughes company statement, expanding access everywhere will be easier with LEO satellites.

    ‘Several geosynchronous [GEO] satellites, including the recently launched Angosat-2 satellite, provide connectivity across much of the continent today,’ it states. ‘These will soon be complemented by OneWeb’s LEO constellation, which will have a prominent hub located in Angola. LEO satellites deliver high throughput at low latency, while GEOs have the capacity to deliver lower-cost, high-throughput services.

    ‘Emerging ground system technologies and Hughes’ electronically steerable antenna [ESA], with its low profile and sleek design, mean high throughput, low-latency connectivity is now feasible throughout Africa – and in fact, around the world from pole to pole. The ESA can support fixed, land mobile, maritime and aviation applications, offering connectivity options that were simply unavailable to most African countries until now.’

    The benefits of more ‘eyes in the sky’ are plentifold, from monitoring environmental changes to wildlife conservation

    Africa’s satellite industry is currently enjoying a boom time. In November last year Uganda launched its first satellite, PearlAfricaSat-1, on a rocket that also carried Zimbabwe’s first satellite, ZimSat-1. Both units were developed through the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds 5 project in collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. Bonny Omara, lead engineer on the Ugandan satellite development team, told NPR what it meant to work with the Zimbabwean team.

    ‘I feel really great to work with our neighbours in Africa … to have a team of engineers and great men joining hands to work together towards attaining a common goal,’ he said.

    PearlAfricaSat-1 and ZimSat-1 brought the total number of satellites launched by African countries to 52. Since then, Kenya launched its first satellite, Taifa-1, in April 2023 with the help of SpaceX. The unit is equipped with an optical camera and will provide both agricultural and environmental monitoring data for Kenya.

    Then in July, Côte d’Ivoire announced its own plans to put its first satellite in orbit within the next two years. That unit, named YAM-SAT-CI 01, will be equipped with a camera that will provide images of the country’s coast, forests, natural parks and urban areas. Best of all, the satellite will be entirely locally made.

    De Wet says that the demand for satellite connectivity in Africa is as strong as it’s ever been. ‘The market demand remains unmet with more users, more locations, more traffic… There is an unsaturated, ever-growing hunger for data and connectivity. This hasn’t changed and will not change,’ he says. ‘The question then is, how can satellite meet this demand and can it continue to offer an attractive cost-performance package for the users?’

    Adding to this are the fundamental recent industry changes that LEO and MEO constellations are bringing. ‘We will definitely see a changing landscape in the next three to five years,’ says De Wet.

    ‘The higher data speeds, lower costs and massive amounts of satellite network capacity will simply be better balanced to meet the demand. It is expected that a total of 200 Tbps will become available on the global constellations, and user terminals will readily be able to offer 50 Mbps connectivity options. All of this is just an indication of the potential being developed and which will fuel a satellite industry boom in and for Africa.’

    Meanwhile, SpaceX subsidiary Starlink recently confirmed that its LEO satellite network would be made available to all SADC countries – with the notable exception of South Africa – by the end of 2024.

    And as the industry expands, delivery models are changing, too. Satellite provider Intelsat, for example, is investing in the development of a sustainable communications infrastructure across Africa, aiming to build satellite-backed networks that provide all the services needed to optimise and maintain the network, rather than simply selling access to data.

    African nations are embracing the space race and – with each satellite that is launched – actively furthering digital connectedness across the continent

    ‘Through this innovative managed-services approach, the Intelsat team is making it as easy as possible for African mobile network operators [MNOs] to incorporate disaster-proof satellite communications into an integrated network of networks, as either a primary or redundant communications option,’ according to Intelsat.

    ‘In the best example of this strategy at play, we are working with the largest operators in the DRC to deliver a wide range of applications, including trunking, cellular backhaul and enterprise services. In the DRC, Intelsat is building the sites, powering connectivity and managing the network as part of a singular, seamless offering. In other parts of the continent, the Intelsat team is working with oil and gas companies to enhance connectivity for on- and offshore facilities and helping a leading MNO in Burkina Faso build a new network that can serve both consumer and enterprise users in the market.’

    As Africa’s satellite coverage gets bigger, the continent will get smaller – at least in terms of communications networks and the connectivity of its people.

    From offshore oil and gas rigs to horseback safari tours and livestock farms, satellite tech’s use cases are expanding and – at last – Africa’s unconnected businesses and communities are hooking up to the broader world.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images