Satellites – Africa’s new internet opportunity

Satellites – Africa’s new internet opportunity

Satellite internet promises fast, powerful coverage for businesses, organisations, and individuals right across Africa. The technology is ready to go, all that holds us back is regulation. For a planet that spent 4.5 billion years with only one satellite – the Moon – Planet Earth has certainly grown its numbers. Today, there are over 9 632 satellites orbiting the earth.

Of these, the vast majority – 8 246 at time of writing – are satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Most of these satellites have a specific focus – providing enhanced, easily accessible internet communication for the people of earth.

An LEO satellite such as a Starlink satellite orbits the Earth at an altitude of 550km, and takes around 90 minutes to complete an orbit. These low altitudes and short orbital periods make LEO satellites well suited to providing fast, reliable connectivity anywhere on, or above, the planet’s surface.

The lower orbit makes for shorter round-trip data time than geostationary satellites, which orbit the planet at around 35 000km. This means less latency, and better support for streaming, online gaming, video calls or other high data-rate activities.

This makes LEO satellites particularly valuable for connecting remote rural areas, underserved communities, and regions in crisis, as well as for marine and aviation applications. However, satellite internet has also achieved efficiencies that offer connectivity at competitive rates across society.

In many parts of Africa, there has been enthusiasm. However, there remain challenges – primarily around pricing and regulation. In South Africa, there has been particular complications given the country’s empowerment and local-partnership requirements.

The country’s Electronic Communications Act, requires that all telecoms licensees be 30% owned by historically disadvantaged groups. Aside from that, ICASA has determined that to operate in South Africa, Starlink would need separate licenses for Individual Electronic Communications Service (I-ECS) and Individual Electronic Network Service (I-ECNS). Getting these would first require ICASA to invite applications, mybroadband reports that this has not happened for 13 years.

As with any disruptive technology, there are also questions around who will own the network. On a continent where connectivity has traditionally involved landline, mobile broadband, and fibre technologies, where does satellite fit in?

Incumbent service providers will necessarily also have concerns about competition. What does it mean for telecommunications companies, for instance, when mobile handsets can instantly link to a LEO network instead of to cellular towers?

With the country initially expected to be an early launch territory, the compliance complexities have seen Starlink’s South African debut postponed indefinitely.

Zimbabwe has also seen some recent confusion around the use of the technology and the correct means of deploying it legally.

However, already certain African companies are building experience using satellite internet technology in other parts of the continent.

Telemedia CTO Steven Bretherick is bullish about the potential of satellite internet for ICT in Africa. “It is the future of communications,” says Bretherick. “Satellite internet connectivity lowers the barriers of entry for start-ups, which boosts competition and allows businesses to offer more effective, affordable services to their customers.”

While Bretherick is optimistic about Telemedia’s prospects on the continent, he sees slow progress in opening up the satellite space as a missed opportunity.

“We all support the need for empowerment, and for new providers to meet licensing requirements,” he says. “But in an agile telecoms space, where all territories are part of a global economy, too much regulation can make you less competitive, while also limiting the ability of underserved communities to access connectivity.”

Bretherick says it is in everybody’s interests that stakeholders find common ground.

“We would really like to see greater communication between regulators and satellite telecoms businesses.,” he says. “Africa needs to keep pace with technological advances across the globe.”

If and when the practical and regulatory hurdles are overcome, a significant dividend awaits, with a growing, digitally savvy population of young Africans ready to embrace the opportunities of online work, business, and education. Already 70% of Sub-Saharan Africa is aged under 30.

It’s a young, innovative region, famously able to leverage new technologies like mobile broadband, and mobile money to leapfrog its global competitors. Satellite internet provides another prime opportunity for the African continent to connect its booming youth population to the opportunities of the connected economy.

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