Big Interview

Satellites on the skyline as African demand grows

With almost a billion unconnected people on the African continent, satellites will play a key role in meeting growing demand, explains Intelsat’s VP for Africa, Brian Jakins

Getting infrastructure to parts of Africa is, to put it lightly, a challenge. Despite 1.2 billion people living in on the continent, there are 634 million people without electricity – the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa. Even fewer have broadband – around 300 million.

Physical challenges for deploying fibre means other solutions, such as satellite, are especially popular in the region, with Intelsat operating 24 satellites there altogether. Brian Jakins, the satellite operator’s regional VP for Africa, says it is no surprise that three of the four satellites it has launched in the last year cover the continent.

“If you look at the last four satellites we’ve launched over the last 12 months, three provide coverage to Africa, and that shows where we want to build the investment and provide services,” he explains.

The demand is there, he claims, with Africa seeing a “huge upsurge” in the telecoms market as a whole over the last few years. 

The “ecosystem of terrestrial and satellite” has seen significant growth, but “not without challenges”, he adds. “There is the need for more investment to get currency into Africa so infrastructure can grow. If you look at electricity, not everyone has that in Africa. 

“There are a host of applications and services used in the African market. From a broadband perspective there is a lot of growth from a cell backhaul perspective, where mobile networks are trying to offload a load of traffic from their network to maintain their voice services, putting data on a separate route. That’s one of the biggest areas we see in the African market.

“Consumer broadband is also growing significantly, and then trunking. Obviously, that is declining with the advent of undersea cables, but you still have your traditional voice telephony in remote locations and then you also have corporate networks. It is a tried and tested method in remote locations.”

Investment challenge

Of course, one concern around satellite connectivity is always cost and, in a market in need of investment, this can be a challenge. Jakins says this is why Intelsat is always looking for new and innovative solutions, to overcome the high costs, including the Epic satellites, the first of which was launched in January 2016.

He explains: “Using the Epic fleet you have a high number of spot beams, the ground infrastructure is fully backwards compatible, and the efficiencies are significantly higher.” For the end-user, the cost of a megabit could drop by up to 50%, he claims. 

“That is purely based on the efficiencies of an Epic satellite with a great ground infrastructure,” Jakins adds. The cost of launching the satellite is still the same, but “what you can do with modern technology is provide a greater amount of throughput, which reduces the cost of ownership. So it is cheaper to buy megabits, and that’s what we’ve done to meet demands of the African market”. This growth has led to a number of partnerships, which Intelsat has announced this year, covering the region. One partnership with Liquid Telecom, announced in April of this year, sees the African operator using Intelsat’s 33e satellite for a number of services across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The solution features ground networking equipment based upon the Newtec Dialog VSAT platform, including technology developed under the ESA-funded Project Indigo by Intelsat and Newtec.

Jakins explains: “Obviously, Liquid is trying to connect as many places as possible where the business case makes sense. So to provide seamless capacity, they use a number of solutions, tapping into the whole ecosystem of both terrestrial and satellite. 

“They also serve some broadcast customers that they run through their fibre, but for the last mile, they use satellite. The partnership was reciprocal as we have a core beam over South Africa where we can uplink their services from, and Liquid will be our partner to provide services to other customers through that managed teleport.”

Intelsat has an agreement with Somalia’s Dalkom in order to expand the operator’s broadband enterprise and direct-to-home services in east and central Africa and the Middle East. Privately-owned Dalkom will incorporate Ku-band satellite services provided by Intelsat 17 to extend services currently delivered by its fibre network.

The deal will also expand broadband enterprise networks into countries such as South Sudan and the DRC, as well as the Middle East. Dalkom will also add DTH services to its portfolio in Somalia.

“With Dalkom, they are in all of Africa and are also a major terrestrial provider, and want to ensure they have sufficient capacity to provide DTH services, broadband services, while also having redundancy on those fibre cables. So that was very different.”