Broadband in Africa: Untamed Opportunities

The continent is enormous, not just by landmass but in the potential it represents to all industries. Realizing this potential will require robust communications as well as overcoming significant challenges. Satellite remains one of the strongest ways forward, and while this is good for the industry, the positive impact that broadband in Africa will have is as massive as the continent itself.

Ambitions, audacious plans and great visions: the last year has yielded interesting discussions on delivering broadband in Africa. In the beginning of 2015, OneWeb shared its plans to bring high-speed Internet and telephony to billions of people around the world, including the underserved or completely unconnected masses in Africa. The idea is to launch and operate a constellation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites — a projected fleet of 648 telecom-class micro birds — to deliver low-latency, high-speed Internet access directly to small, self-installable user terminals. In September, Fibersat announced a deal with Arabsat for a hosted payload with numerous Ka-band spot beams blanketing Africa, and in October of the same year, Facebook made headlines with the announcement of its plans for broadband in Africa. As part of its Internet.org initiative, Facebook signed a deal with Israeli satellite operator Spacecom to use capacity on the soon-to-be-launched Amos 6 satellite for what Facebook describes as core Internet services, such as healthcare, banking and, of course, Facebook. The capacity will be shared with French satellite operator Eutelsat, which will sell full satellite broadband services in the region.

Indeed, plans to connect Africa have achieved some traction, but bridging the digital gap between the southern and northern hemispheres will take time. GSMA, in its “Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2015 Report,” predicts mobile broadband penetration in the continent to grow from slightly above 20 percent to almost 60 percent by 2020. Challenges — technical, fiscal and geographical — are well known, but despite the obstacles, Africa represents huge potential. The continent has progressed technologically, most notably in cellular networks, but the growth potential remains immense. It is a win-win situation: addressing Africa's broadband needs helps feed the satellite industry while, at the same time, boosts Africa's gross domestic product. According to the World Bank, in emerging markets, a 10-percentage point increase in broadband penetration accelerates economic growth by 1.38 percentage points — more than in high-income countries and even more than other telecommunications services.

Cairo Tower

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) found that, as of the end of 2014, more than half the world’s population lacks Internet access. OneWeb has created a strategy to boost mobile networks around the world to, in turn, provide connectivity to areas that need it most. The company is working closely with local operator partners while its system` would extend the networks of mobile operators globally. This extension, together with these nurtured partnerships, will see mobile operators provide coverage to rural and remote areas that cannot be connected via terrestrial networks due to fiscal restraints. Once connected, OneWeb's terminals are able to provide access to surrounding areas using a partner operator's licensed spectrum — this can be via a Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G or LTE connection — or, alternatively, over unlicensed spectrum — via LTE or Wi-Fi only.

To counter any technical limitations, OneWeb terminals were designed to be compact and as easy to use as possible, explains Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb, adding to the advantages of using capacity from LEO satellites.

"No technical know-how is needed; our terminals are small and self-installable. Additionally, they are self-pointing and can operate on solar panels. In this regard, LEO is ideal. As the satellites are 36 times closer to the Earth, the antennas can be much smaller and, at the same time, they have a low latency. LEO-based Internet performance is identical to terrestrial systems. Furthermore, LEO systems can provide high performance backhaul for cellular systems and small cells. As the system performance is identical to terrestrial topologies, cellular towers that use LEO backhaul can have seamless handover, allowing for the full functionality of the cell tower. There is, however, a con: there are no high-throughput LEO systems operational yet," says Wyler.

From LEO to GEO

Highlighting the opportunities that the continent represents for its Amos satellite fleet, Spacecom points to the last mile as being Africa's main challenge in bringing advanced communications services to the continent, especially in hard to reach regions but also in many urban areas. Spacecom is currently working with service providers in various countries across Sub-Saharan Africa to bring last-mile connectivity to customers in their territories.

"Africa represents huge potential to many in the industry, but it also has significant challenges, including its size, geographical differences and the simple fact that there are many areas that are hard to reach with communications services," says Eran Shapiro, director of business and technology ventures at Spacecom. "The business climate varies from country to country and, therefore, we are required to operate differently in each country. There is no single template; we have to be able to work in a manner that fits each and every single country."

According to Shapiro, the partnership with Facebook is an excellent vehicle for Spacecom to serve African communities, enabling them to receive fast, reliable broadband Internet. The venture with Facebook is the quickest way to unlock and expand the continent's latent growth, he says.

The best approach for delivering broadband in Africa and helping reduce the digital divide is by executing one successful project at a time, explains Casimir Berthier Fotso Chatue, CEO at Afrikanet. A satellite Internet service provider dedicated to African markets, Afrikanet was formed in 1999 to provide last-mile connectivity, but has been providing satellite broadband in Africa since 2005. According to Fotso Chatue, the company is mainly focusing on providing a backhaul option in urban areas, as well as on WiMAX, LTE, 4G and hotspots. Satellite options are provided for corporate clients and projects that require constant connectivity. For remote areas, the company provides satellite services, wireless LAN, point-to-point and point-to-multipoint access.

Addressing the obstacles, Fotso Chatue explains that technical challenges are reduced as Internet access in Africa increases. High-speed Internet can be used to upgrade the skills and knowledge of people on the ground in Africa. This, in conjunction with Afrikanet's training programs, makes it easier for the company to address customers and to provide the services best suited for their needs. Infrastructural challenges — since a lot of infrastructure in Africa is obsolete — create additional costs as equipment must be imported, which subsequently leads to logistic challenges.

"Transport significantly impacts costs and the overall delivery process. An antenna price, for example, might double because of these costs. These infrastructural challenges are due to major manufacturers being reluctant to install branches in Africa, whether for political reasons or concerns that unstable energy supply might impact their production line," says Fotso Chatue, adding that overcoming fiscal challenges in Africa requires a creative approach.

"Financial constraints are the most prevalent. Usually, projects don’t have access to adequate funding to fulfill their needs. We do our best to deal with this by assisting in raising money, orienting companies toward potential donors or executing fundraising initiatives," says Fotso Chatue.

Afrikanet keeps costs down by working with local entrepreneurs and qualified staff on African soil, allowing the company to be as close to its customers as possible and to be very competitive in terms of installation and after sale costs. The company has also been developing relationships with several European and American satellite capacity providers, which will help in negotiating better prices, says Fotso Chatue.

At present, Afrikanet uses capacity from Eutelsat 16A, Eutelsat 8WB, Telstar 11N, Africasat 1a and Intelsat 14, and will soon be using Ka-band. All of these are GEO satellites and while this might cause occasional interference, says Fotso Chatue, it provides larger coverage, around 40 percent of the planet, and by definition cancels handoffs that might cause problems with consumer usage. LEO and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites, on the other hand, have minimal latency but their terminals have to be motorized, making them over budget for Afrikanet's business model.

Primary Connectivity

Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) also uses capacity from GEO satellites as it works toward its mission of connecting rural communities across Sub-Saharan Africa. AMN hopes to build and operate 5,000 mobile network base stations in the next five years to provide connectivity and telecommunications to unserved areas, bringing social, educational, and economic benefits. From not having existing connectivity of any kind to basic services as a starting point, AMN sees these rural communities only requiring broadband in the coming years. Starting with 2.75G voice, SMS and basic packet data service (EDGE - enhanced data GSM environment), AMN will add 3G, 4G, LTE and 5G services as demand dictates, explains Michael Darcy, CEO of AMN.

Satellite capacity from SES and Eutelsat supports the delivery of services to AMN's Mobile Network Operator (MNO) clients. The MNOs provide licenses, spectrum, subscribers and the core network, which is connected to the public Internet, explains Darcy, adding that the leased satellite capacity is used to connect the remote base stations to the core network.

"When considering LEO versus MEO versus GEO, there are pros and cons," says Darcy. "GEO satellites have the advantage of low-cost user equipment, such as a Ku-band VSAT, for example, and relatively low-cost capacity compared to other options. The downside is that GEO satellites have a higher latency than MEO or LEO satellites. However, a single-hop delay in a end-to-end call does not impair quality and we use local switching to avoid the double-hop from rural to rural."

AMN builds mobile network base stations that are optimized for rural applications, with low capital expenditure and low operational expenditure. The company uses a low-power Base-station Transceiver System (BTS) that can be powered via a solar-based energy system. This, explains Darcy, helps AMN overcome the challenge posed by Africa's grid power limitations and its high diesel costs, which make generator use unfeasible. AMN uses a VSAT transmission network to connect the BTS to a base station controller, which is collocated with the MNOs mobile switching center.

So far, AMN has deployed networks in four countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and will add three more in 2016. It is in the process of rolling out networks in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Guinea and Benin.

Maintaining Quality

It is important to provide more than just bandwidth as a commodity, says Bill Green, director of strategic accounts at SpeedCast. Customers need an intuitive and consultative approach to meeting specific end-user needs, he says, adding that the African market requires the provision of cost efficient bandwidth as a managed service together with strong local support. Africa represents a huge growth marketplace for all industries and these all require robust communications to support these aspirations. Therefore, explains Green, doing things right the first time and with scalability is paramount, as is contributing to the local community and meeting compliance requirements.

According to Green, the company has one broadband strategy for both urban and rural users. This is to provide bandwidth alongside a service that will not need to be upgraded on a regular basis in order to provide a good end-user experience. Even in remote areas, explains Green, the end user expects an experience and price similar to that in the city.

"There is an overhead from an IT department to maintain constant adjustments to the user experience and if suppliers fail to make the grade, then a tender exercise can be costly in terms of resource and financial terms. By understanding requirements from the outset, we can apply our technology portfolio in the correct manner, give a solution that suits the customer commercial profile and back it up with a service that is light touch from the customer IT department and, therefore, focus can be inward to the end user," says Green.

The Impact of Broadband in Africa

In developed markets, broadband has proven to be crucial to functioning efficiently and comfortably, so much so that users are completely dependent on it. While its value for the developed world is high, broadband in emerging markets, such as Africa, for example, is even more important. Increased use of broadband networks and services increase economic efficiencies and productivity to the point that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is impacted.

According to a World Bank study, low-income and middle-income countries, between 2000 and 2006, experienced an increase in GDP of around 1.38 percentage points for each 10 percent increase in broadband penetration. This result means that the development impact of broadband on emerging economies is greater than on developed countries, which only saw a 1.21 percentage point increase in per capita GDP growth per 10 percent broadband penetration increase.

The study proves that out of everything under the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) umbrella, broadband has a potentially higher growth effect. What is interesting here is that broadband's growth potential is higher than mobile telephony, even though mobile telephony has been the fastest growing technology worldwide in the last 10 years, having achieved a global penetration rate of 76.2 out of 100 persons in 2010.

While easy access to information clearly leads to efficiencies, which have wide-reaching implications, broadband in Africa enables job creation, which is a vital lifeline to any emerging market. This is through not only the deployment of broadband infrastructure, but also through indirect opportunities induced by these activities, which means that low-tech and high-tech jobs for both skilled and unskilled workers will be created. VS

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