The bid to bring internet connectivity to the entire African continent got serious this year, and everyone seems to agree space is the best solution. So how are satellites helping fill the gaps in rural connectivity and who is involved?
Building web infrastructure in rural areas is a challenge for all developing countries, but if you consider that 63% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lives in rural areas, the size and importance of the task there are thrown into sharp relief. Little wonder then that Facebook made headlines with their recent announcement to partner with Eutelsat on a major satellite project launching next year with the goal of providing continent-wide web coverage. In fact, similar Facebook projects have drawn criticism over net neutrality issues, but if these lessons have been learned, this project will represent a positive, albeit relatively short-term, solution for the continent; the economic and social benefits of bringing internet access to this demographic are undoubtedly huge.
The Facebook/Eutelsat project is part of a larger initiative, internet.org, which Facebook announced two years ago in an effort to accelerate the rate of connectivity by addressing the physical, economic and social barriers that are keeping people from getting online. The company plans to work with local partners across Africa to utilise satellite and terrestrial capacity in order to deliver services to rural towns and villages.
“Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” explains Chris Daniels, VP of Internet.org. “We are looking forward to partnering with Eutelsat on this project and investigating new ways to use satellites to connect people in the most remote areas of the world more efficiently.”
As part of a multi-year agreement with Spacecom, the two companies will utilise the entire broadband payload on the AMOS-6 satellite. They are currently building a dedicated system comprising satellite capacity, gateways and terminals and the team aims to have the service operational by the second half of 2016.
The system itself is configured with high gain spot beams, meaning it will be able to provide targeted coverage to large parts of West, East and Southern Africa. The service is optimised for community and Direct-to-User access using affordable, off-the-shelf equipment.
A Bigger Picture
OneWeb, a project backed by Virgin Galactic, is thinking more broadly in its ambitions. The company’s constellation of satellites logically interlock with one another to create a coverage footprint across the globe. The first of 720 satellites will be launched in 2017, and once full deployment is achieved in 2019, the system will provide affordable access to all areas where current internet provision is currently unavailable.
OneWeb’s satellites are closer to Earth, allowing for high performance connectivity. Small, low-cost user terminals talk to the satellites in the sky, and emit LTE, 3G and WiFi to the surrounding areas, providing high-speed access for everyone. The benefits are manifold; in addition to rural coverage, company Founder Greg Wyler believes the OneWeb system will make a real difference to first responders and other aid workers, bridging thee gaps during hurricanes, earthquakes and refugee situations, where those on the ground are are often left abruptly without infrastructure. The system can also provide low-latency web access to planes.
The Long Game
If it’s so clear that one of the most pressing economic drivers of satellite technology is its potential to boost telecommunications, what foundations are individual countries laying to boost their digital access long term?
Countries like Zimbabwe don’t have national space programmes of their own, but are nevertheless keen to take advantage of satellite capabilities; earlier in the year, TelOne, the national telco, announced that it would be using capacity from a satellite run by British satellite operator Avanti Communications.
“Our contract has enabled us to address Zimbabwe’s gaping digital divide at pace,” stated Chipo Mtasa, TelOne’s Managing Director. “Satellite continues to play a huge role in bringing communities, businesses, and public sector organisations online.”
Avanti has been heavily involved in Africa’s satellite technology ventures. According to the company’s chief operating officer Matthew O’Connor, the continent now accounts for over 80 percent of Avanti’s capacity.
“Most satellites are built and launched by the major European and US aerospace companies,” he says. “The huge cost of building and launching satellites, together with the expertise needed to operate them and the long lead times to get a project underway, mean that most governments find that it is cheaper, quicker, and better in terms of service delivery to choose a commercial provider such as Avanti.”
Along with TelOne, Avanti is working with a number of other Africa telcos, including Orange Kenya and Tanzania Telecom, as well as internet service providers like Wanachi and Internet Solutions, the largest pan-African ISP. “Our proprietary software enables a service provider to set up and manage an international network with very little training,” says O’Connor. With these advances, the next few years should see a sharp rise in web literacy on the continent, and that in turn is key to driving innovation at a time when levels of foreign investment are growing rapidly.
If you’re interested in learning more from industry leaders including Eutelsat, OneWeb, and Virgin Galactic, remember to register for the Space Innovation Conference, which takes place in London on 7th-8th April 2016: https://booking.spaceinnovationcongress.com