Bringing Broadband to Africa

We experience broadband in different ways around the globe. In more developed areas, we’re hungry for faster speeds, especially as we roll out 5G and connect more of our daily lives with Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Generally speaking, faster broadband speeds in well-established areas is just icing on the connectivity cake.

But in many parts of Africa, access to broadband remains sought after. According to Intelsat Regional Vice President of Africa Sales Brian Jakins, the world has approximately four billion unconnected people, and in sub-Saharan Africa alone that amounts to about 400 million people — and 60 percent of those live in rural communities.” For these rural areas, broadband access provides crucial connectivity for operating schools, hospitals, etc. Access to connectivity could be the difference between receiving an education, or not.

Bridging the Digital Divide

In speaking to the greater African broadband landscape, Jakins says that it has “developed aggressively over the past several of years. With submarine cables, fiber, and satellite communications being the primary source of connectivity.”

Yet, there is still a lot of work to be done. OneWeb Director of Market Access Laith Hamad states that “household broadband penetration in Africa is around 8 percent, compared to the Middle East, which has around a 40 percent broadband penetration rate.”

So, are we making progress in bridging the digital divide in Africa? Avanti Communications CEO Kyle Whitehill believes that we are quite a way off, especially when it comes to laying fiber. “I think the aspiration of bridging the digital divide is a long way off — and a long way off in the sense of years. The African continent is so large, and what’s going to hold back the broadband penetration in Africa is, ‘Can you deploy terrestrial network as fast as possible?’ And the answer to that one is no. You’re not going to be able to deploy fiber, the mobile guys are struggling to get into rural communities, so the normal way of driving broadband connectivity across countries and continents doesn’t really apply to Africa,” he says.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to take time to lay down fiber on a continent as large as Africa, and with such varied terrain. In contrast, Greg Wyler originally founded OneWeb to bridge connectivity gaps in Africa via satellite connectivity. “By laying fiber in Rwanda, Wyler saw how much you could do for a country when you bring connectivity to it … but he saw how difficult it was to lay fiber over such difficult terrain. It led him to the idea of having connectivity over satellite technology,” says OneWeb’s Hamad.

Although it may take some time to figure out the right connectivity mix, there’s a consensus that work is being done. Intelsat’s Jakins believes that “we make strides every day … it’s one chunk at a time. That’s what we’ve been doing — finding innovative solutions, attacking different markets, and seeing how we can do this in most cost-effective manner that is self-sustaining and economically viable.”

What’s the Social Impact?

It’s a no-brainer that broadband access spurs access to education, as well as economic development. But greater connectivity can bring together people, especially in cultures where community is of utmost importance. “Community in the African culture is a way of life, and providing internet access in some of the areas that Intelsat has done already brings some of those communities together,” Jakins explains.

ST Engineering iDirect Director of Business Development Richard Schaap delves into an anecdote, explaining how even big business recognizes the social importance of connectivity. “A couple of years ago I was in Cape Town, and there was a gentleman from one of the largest banks. He gave a very nice speech, and said: ‘by giving people access to the internet, on their smartphones, they can have, for the first time, a bank account — they can transfer money, they can pay bills, buy internet access,” he says. “That’s going to be a model that we’re going to see in Africa, which is going to develop very rapidly: I call this ‘e-banking.”

Who’s Buying Capacity?

“Regular” consumers don’t have the necessary disposable income to be able to afford recurring broadband access, according to Schaap. OneWeb’s Hamad agrees, in saying that “in many African countries, broadband connectivity is priced well above the earning of the average individual.”

Enterprise is the main source of broadband customers in Africa. “The majority, maybe 95 percent, of all Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) are in professional environments. They’re not with the end-user at home — except for the lucky few who are able to invest at spend that type of money,” he says. “The majority of people who have broadband the traditional way — I wouldn’t call them consumers, I call them ‘pro-sumers,’ or professional consumers.”

So how do we reach the “regular” consumer? According to Schaap, “The only way that the regular consumer in Africa can be reached is by bridging the digital divide by providing any kind of G connectivity — 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G in the near future. And whether the networking backhauling is done via fiber, via satellite, it’s irrelevant to the consumer. The consumer wants to have a service — how it’s done technically? They couldn’t care less.”

Governments in Africa are also recognizing the need for greater connectivity, and experts are predicting that this market will grow. “The demand is huge, and growing really fast,” according to Hamad. “It will require a substantially more capacity. Governments across the country have broadband plans — they recognize the need for this connectivity. OneWeb is collaborating and working with those governments to bring our services to their market.”

According to Whitehill, “[African] governments are conscious of needing to bring connectivity into their own infrastructure, including government offices, schools, and hospitals. I think that will grow.”

Yet, Whitehill doesn’t believe that we’re going to continue seeing the same demand from enterprise/government. “Within the next three to five years, you’re going to see almost a quadrupling of the size of satellite services. But that’s not going to primarily be in the government/enterprise space — it’s going to come from satellite backhaul from satellite operators, it’s going to come from military, and it’s going to come from providing broadband services,” he says.

Stick With GEO, or Move to LEO?

Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites have traditionally provided capacity to Africa. GEO satellites experience more delay then Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) or Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites, meaning LEO/MEO satellites could provide benefits to applications which are latency-sensitive, like mobile banking.

Schaap believes that “for the majority of traditional broadband users, [latency] is not relevant to them. I think LEO and MEO will have a specific niche when people need the advantage of the lower roundtrip time.”

Whitehill speaks to the benefits which LEO satellites could offer, but believes that GEO will continue to be the primary way of delivering connectivity. “When you’re looking at them in terms of technology: you can build and launch a LEO relatively quickly, it’s significantly cheaper, and it has low latency … but we’re still a number of years away from the equipment that will be compatible with the LEO satellites. We’re also a number of years away from really understanding how affordable that’s going to be. Because the satellites are only going to have a five to six-year shelf life , they’re going to have high replacement costs, whereas the GEO satellites last for 15 to 20 years,” he says.

What Progress is Being Made?

OneWeb launched its first six satellites this year, but is now working on ground infrastructure. “We are building a few huge gateways in Africa, each of which has around 15-18 antennas. We are building the ground infrastructure, launching satellites, and we will eventually have services terrestrial, mobility, maritime, aeronautical, for government — those types of verticals we’re planning to serve, in the very near future,” says Hamad.Avanti Communications is also working on the ground.The operator launched Hylas-4 earlier this year, but “what we’ve been working on there in the past nine months is to build a ground infrastructure so we could provide local services. So, we now have a ground Earth station in Nigeria, and a ground Earth station in South Africa,” says Whitehill.

Intelsat has “about 23 satellites that give coverage to Africa,” says Jakins. Additionally, Intelsat “had various projects connecting schools in Tanzania and Rwanda, working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide connectivity to some of their refugee camps, and looking at how they benefit from having those IT centers that are backhauled via satellite.” ST Engineering iDirect has been working on improving efficiency. “ ST Engineering iDirect and other equipment vendors have been developing technology to improve efficiency, to squeeze more bits out of each Hertz (Hz),” says Schaap. VS

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