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Is Satellite Really Reducing the Digital Divide?

Pockets of the expansive continent are online, but it’s a far way until people are connected from the Cape to Cairo. While satellite faces its challenges, it remains the only enabling technology.

Africa is physical, it’s vast, it’s laden with as many challenges as it is natural beauty, and it’s not without its great perils. Africa is one of the most “real” places on Earth.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that many ideas and theories go to Africa to die. Africa is not for notions; it’s for actions and plans made real. The continent begs for you to walk the talk. And when it comes to widespread access to broadband and all its glistening promise of unlocking the treasures of the digital economy, the continent begs.

Looking beyond the twinkling lights of the fortunate, connected cities, there is a vast expanse of the unfortunate. While still waiting, they ask: Are we really on the verge of reducing the digital divide? The answer, according to Krystal Wilson, director of space applications programs at the Secure World Foundation, is: potentially.

“While satellite has the potential to bring numerous communities online quickly, there are still a lot of boxes that need be checked. Fully operating constellations, successful rollout in a huge variety of places, and multiple sustainable business models are all possible, but unproven,” says Wilson.

Getting this right is not the be all and end all of the digital society, she adds. Providing internet access certainly has an impact on social aspects, a trend found the world over. And it also certainly fuels the growing trend in mobile money – more than half of the 277 total services globally, as of December 2016, are in Sub-Saharan Africa, making it the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, according to the GSM Association's State of Mobile Money in Sub-Saharan Africa report. But beyond entertainment, keeping in touch with friends and family, or getting news updates, and internet use for commercial purposes has significant room for expansion.

“As more and more people are connected, though, the focus online activity is likely to shift to more commercial purposes,” says Wilson, adding that she expects to see satellite broadband players first target the more stable, developed economies in Africa, such as Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Angola, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, and Ethiopia.

“Satellite companies [will likely] first target those with either lucrative natural resource industries or highly active technology sectors. But I’d be very interested to see how companies work with countries such as Sudan, Libya, or Egypt, which have high Gross Domestic Products (GDP) but perhaps more challenging regulatory and political considerations,” says Wilson.

While regulatory challenges will remain a significant hurdle for satellite broadband providers to set-up shop, especially due to the sheer number of African countries, each with different regulatory regimes, there is another overlooked challenge, says Wilson.

“An under-discussed issue is the importance of robust, simple ground stations in order to ensure the widespread adoption of satellite broadband throughout Africa. In many places, the logistical and environment-related challenges of installing and maintaining a satellite dish are significant. Weather, lack of technical training in some rural communities, and large distances will all make maintaining the necessary infrastructure difficult,” she says.

Getting Real with Broadband

If a greater number of people need to connect in order for online focus to shift to commercial activity, then where are we at bringing Africans online? According to Casimir Berthier Fotso Chatue, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Afrikanet and Gosat Broadband, availability of broadband is increasing.

Submarine links providing fiber connectivity are able to connect Africa’s east coast from Asia and West coast from Europe. However, Chinese corporations such as Huawei have this year made significant contributions to connectivity from Brazil with the South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) project over a 6,000 kilometer submarine cable, says Chatue.

“Satellite connectivity has also entered the game, not only in Eastern Africa and South Africa, but for the last 10 months in Central and West Africa,” says Chatue. “Satellite operators looking for double-digit growth can no longer stay away from broadband infrastructure investments on African soil.”

While incoming fiber has made an impact on connecting coastal cities, it has struggled to bring rural areas online, says Chatue, adding that it’s imperative to remedy this as 63 percent of the total Sub-Saharan population, or 854 million people, live in rural areas.

“The investment needed to bring fiber to rural Africa is huge. Connectivity by satellite is the only solution available today to reach these growing communities living far from the coastal cities. Only satellite broadband can enable their inclusion to the digital economy. To make a difference on this digital divide, we are making ways and only a few obstacles related to Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operating Expense (OPEX) are to be overcome before 2020,” says Chatue.

Eighteen months ago, connectivity for some may as well have been a dream, yet today, access is as real as ever, explains Chatue.

“We’d just achieved a proof of concept for a 20 megabits per second connection with a small hundred-dollar customer infrastructure budget in Douala, Cameroon. It was not in the government plan to include traditional communities in the faraway villages in the west region. Nor were these areas in the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) cellular company expansion plan. Yet now, several kingdoms in traditional areas are connected. These remote villages, which previously didn’t even have basic 2G or 3G coverage, now have access to broadband capable of delivering Over-the-Top (OTT) applications. These people are now enjoying WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat as well as direct, live audio or video communications via Afrikanet Gosat solutions using ka-band Geostationary Orbit (GEO) High Throughput Satellite (HTS),” says Chatue.

Enabling the SME

The role of HTS is crucial in the ground gained with broadband access, explains, Chatue, as its potential to lower CAPEX will directly impact unemployment and spur growth in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) and Very Small Enterprises (VSE).

The figures are quite stark. Chatue points to the fact that In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 200 million people aged between 15 and 24. This means unemployment poses a huge challenge. Chatue says because of this that HTS can be the enabler for the creation of millions of SMEs or VSEs and, therefore, jobs. The issue is that these SMEs or VSEs need reliable connectivity to compete against big companies and propose their services worldwide. Chatue says the lowered CAPEX now required for satellite broadband since HTS Ka-band was made available can now be the main route to the world digital economy. “According to the 2017 World Bank report, these SMEs account for 95 percent of the firms in Africa and hold 50 percent of jobs. They are on the rise; you can’t set foot in Africa without having to use their services in urban or rural areas as they are everywhere. They are hungry for live content and broadband speeds that they can’t get with either 4G or commercial street fiber when available,” he adds.

Chatue highlights the affordability issue. He believes as long as the CAPEX and OPEX are affordable, it almost seems irrelevant whether the broadband satellite is GEO, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) or Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

When talking about LEO, Chatue believes despite fantastic low latency, it is still to prove that Customer-Premises Equipment (CPE) will be affordable. “We are blown away by the throughput and browsing speed, but CAPEX will be a challenge. MEO via O3b has been good as a backhaul solution but failed to provide a low entry cost to businesses, as the hundred-thousand-dollar CAPEX has proven to be too costly. On the other hand, GEO HTS, with its hundred-dollar cost to access, has been a game changer and disrupted our entire ecosystem,” he says.

Chris McLaughlin, Chief of Corporate and External Affairs at Avanti Communications, adds that in the LEO versus MEO versus GEO debate, every satellite operators will tell you that theirs is best. But in practice, he says, what is available is best.

“On the LEO front, there’s lots of promise of high bandwidth. But the fact is that this is jam of tomorrow, if not, the jam of the day after tomorrow. There may well be LEO solutions in the next three to five years, but those satellites are still being built, they still require the technology to prove them, and then finally still require the ground antennas to be built at a price point that’s affordable. The truth is there is still some way to go for LEO beyond the basic satellite phone from a company like Iridium,” says McLaughlin, adding that pricing is key to unlocking the market.

McLaughlin and Avanti believe that there is absolutely “no question” that the digital divide in Africa is finally on the verge of being reduced. “Yes, we’ll have to move down a satellite delivered route and yes, there is a challenge to it in that you’re dealing with a different technology requiring a small antenna. However, once connected, it opens up all of Africa,” says McLaughlin. “Consumers only have so much money available; you simply have to find the spot at which they find the package manageable.”

A Converged Solution

Getting the price right and finding the best choice out of LEO, MEO, or GEO, or even of the available bands or telecommunications technologies, for that matter, is not the complete solution to reducing Africa’s digital divide and, in turn, unleashing the potential of the digital economies. The solution is holistic, explains Jean-Claude Tshipama, CEO of Konnect Africa, Eutelsat’s initiative dedicated to broadband delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With its soaring population – Africa is the second most populous continent in the world – and the extent of the economic development that is expected in the coming decades, Africa's demand in connectivity is ramping up at an exponential pace. All kinds of technologies are, therefore, needed to address the African market, as terrestrial networks, including fiber, cable and mobile, are not sufficient to answer demand, says Tshipama.

“Satellite is an additional solution that is crucial to connectivity expansion in Africa. It is particularly useful for the provision of broadband services in areas where millions of people still do not have access to broadband infrastructure, particularly those living in rural or remote areas. In addition, HTS satellites enable operators to deliver all types of services, at prices and speeds comparable to terrestrial technologies, bringing satellite broadband within reach of everyone. Since 2017, HTS technology has been successfully deployed by Eutelsat through the Konnect Africa brand in nineteen countries across Africa,” says Tshipama. “By combining terrestrial and satellite strengths, this enables smarter networks delivering connectivity to the largest number of those most in need of it and thus helping to bridge the digital divide.”

Overcoming Challenges from Regulators to Finance

In order to enable a successful rollout of services, regulatory issues need to be overcome. This is simple enough to understand, but given how many countries make up the African continent and that each has its own different regulatory regime, achieving this is anything but simple. Ample pragmatics and a lot of patience are demanded. But what also helps, says Casimir Berthier Fotso Chatue, CEO of Adrikanet and GoSAT Broadband, is regulatory bodies appreciating satellite’s ability in closing Africa’s digital divide.

“Satellite broadband will be the main component in reducing the digital divide in Africa, or there will be no reduction of that division. Governments and regulatory bodies must count on this technology to increase Internet broadband penetration in their respective country. The enabling of the digital economy, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases and poverty reduction resulting from broadband adoption are now a reality in many African countries. Therefore, I urge governments to facilitate inclusive, countrywide investment by public or private sectors in satellite broadband technology. This will really contribute to the rise of Africa that we all expect,” says Chatue.

Governments and satellite operators working together will too make a difference, adds Jean-Claude Tshipama, CEO of Konnect Africa, Eutelsat’s initiative dedicated to broadband delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Governments can play a key role in democratizing local access to satellite operators to support their work in providing a reliable and affordable broadband access to all. We need to work hand in hand with governments implementing strong ICT initiatives,” says Tshipama, adding that additional challenges in reducing digital divide in Africa remain.

“Firstly, there’s the technical and financial access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), which relates to the income gap and social status. This can be quite a hindrance. Secondly, I see the biggest challenge is in covering the last mile, where investment or infrastructure hasn’t organically flowed. This leaves rural populations excluded and not being fully part of the country’s economic and digital progress,” adds Tshipama.

According to Chris McLaughlin, chief of corporate and external affairs at Avanti Communications, working together with national governments exceeds gains in regulation; it can help achieve affordability, too.

“We live in a world where everybody assumes they have endless connectivity all the time. But actually, in most situations, where connectivity is new, there will be a charge, just as there is a charge for water, electricity and everything else. The secret here is to make it affordable across the community. One of the ways you do that in Africa is through competitive packaging, but also in association with national governments as well as with aid and assistance programmes, such as with World Bank.” VS