Building Africa’s satellite infrastructure
Natalie Bannerman speaks to Scott Mumford, CEO of Liquid Telecom Satellite Services, on the changing satellite landscape and its emerging trends, including satellite virtualisation
You may have heard how Liquid Intelligent Technologies, the pan-African telco, is driving technology and infrastructure innovation across the continent. But its satellite division, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services, is equally deserving of attention. Its recent announcements include a new strategic partnership with Telesat to bring Telesat Lightspeed Low Earth Orbit satellite services to Africa, newly expanded capacity agreements for Eutelsat’s EUTELSAT 7B satellite, and an extended partnership agreement with Intelsat for expanded network coverage.
Scott Mumford, CEO of Liquid Telecom Satellite Services, sheds some light on the challenges and opportunities operating across the emerging markets in the satellite sector present, and where satellite sits within the wider Liquid family.
“Up until 15 years ago, satellite was the communication method for everything in Africa because there weren’t terrestrial networks,” he says. “There weren’t mobile networks, and the subsea cables weren’t in, so satellite was the underlying, underpinning technology infrastructure that provided all of the communications internationally, in and out of Africa.”
Mumford says he has seen this change over the last 10 to 15 years, a transition that began with greater subsea cable and fibre infrastructure being deployed across the continent, which saw “speeds go up and prices come down”.
“The understanding then was that satellite was a legacy technology that was slow and expensive, because there was this new shiny ability that came into the network,” he says.
But as we know satellite technology did not stop developing, continued to evolve and kept pace from a technology standpoint. So, it fell on companies like Liquid Telecom Satellite Services to bang its drum and educate people on why satellite is just as good as cable, to remove the stigma of being slow and expensive.
“We’ve moved infrastructure onto the continent rather than it being internationally held,” says Mumford. “Traffic’s not leaving Africa, it’s staying local. It’s directly connected to the data centres. It’s directly connected to the core networks. It’s enjoying a resurgence.”
Operating in emerging markets has its own set of challenges, chief among them being power and its effects on communications infrastructure, primarily terminal equipment and other passie hardware.
Take South Africa as an example. It is one of the most developed evolved economies on the African continent, yet Eskom, the country’s public electricity supplier, has implemented scheduled blackouts due to its aging power infrastructure failing. This causes drops in capacity on mobile networks, and outages on the fibres routes and power surges causing issues.
“It definitely has a wider-reaching impact than just the power side,” Mumford says. “One of the key things I think that’s really important from a satellite standpoint is for the terminal equipment to be very low-powered and able to maintain its speeds, because it isn’t reliant on having to transit through areas that may be switched off or have power blackouts, giving it a unique edge and opportunity.”
Conversations on the role of satellite providers within the wider telecoms ecosystem is ongoing, with some viewing them as distributors or extensions of traditional networks, and others seeing them as competitors in the space. Mumford disagrees with the latter.
“[Satellite is] definitely not a competitor,” he says. “If you look at consumption of data, it’s predominantly driven by internet access. The migration to app-based living is unilateral throughout the world and across all economies.”
Due to Africa being massively underserved – internet penetration rates across the continent are around 35% – satellite has a critical part to play.
“It’s not competing with the terrestrial networks because there’s a lot of investment going into it [terrestrial], especially because a lot of those apps that we mentioned are on mobile phones, tablets and devices,” he says. “Satellite plays a complementary role, in that it enables connectivity into regions where that trusted infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. It also adds an additional layer of resiliency into the network.”
In line with a complementary approach to networking, the relationship between traditional telcos and satellite companies has also shifted from one where each was somewhat isolated to one where they are increasingly integrated.
“Things have always been very siloed, and to a degree in a lot of instances it still is,” says Mumford. “It is also a very niche area of expertise and skill. But I think the satellite sector industry, as a whole, has done a lot to demystify itself and break down those barriers from the telco perspective.”
As managed services and everything being internet-enabled become ubiquitous, Mumford believes having a “single-service architecture over multiple technologies and making it easy for telcos to be able to access that, without having to invest heavily an infrastructure” brings the relationship between satellite and telcos even closer.
“It’s really opened up [telcos’] minds to understanding the advantages [satellite] can bring them, in terms of getting services into places that they could never deliver services to previously,” adds Mumford.
One of these managed services is network security, and despite the inherently secure nature of satellite technology, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services is not exempt to one of the biggest falsehoods about wireless technology: that just hacking into a radio frequency signal grants access to the network.
“Most satellite systems run on a time division multiple access system, which means the frequency changes roughly every quarter of a second, that you’d have to be able to access. There’s also underlying intellectual property and cybersecurity that sits on the backend of that,” says Mumford.
As a partner of Microsoft and AWS, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services has access to the cybersecurity elements that come with those agreements. It also works with companies like Cloudfare and Arbor that provide cybersecurity on the backend and the network security element.
“Generally speaking, satellites been proven to be extremely secure,” says Mumford, “and we apply all of those biases by default, whether that’s at the hardware layer, a satellite RF layer or an IP cloud cybersecurity layer.”
At the software level, the increasing softwarisation of everything is also permeating the satellite sector.
“You just have to look at the companies that have come into the satellite environment in the last five years,” says Mumford. “There’s Microsoft with its Azure Orbital and Azure Space. Amazon is coming in with its low Earth orbit constellation, Kuiper, and they’re moving towards a software-defined and virtualised platform. SpaceX, with how its running Starlink, is the same.”
According to Mumford, Liquid is already in discussions with several satellite infrastructure virtualisation companies with the aim of rolling out several initial deployments, “where we tie in the virtualisation of satellite hardware to our SDN platforms that enable orchestrated service set up and tear down based on web portal access or a service orchestrator that’s tied into the terrestrial SDN platform”.
The next generation of geostationary satellites are all software-defined, says Mumford, where “onboard system processing adjusts how the satellite processes data, where it moves the signal to based-on similar algorithms to SDN on a terrestrial network”.
Virtualisation aside, the internet-of-things (IoT) and mobile applications have been some of the most talked about use cases for satellite technology.
“There’s a lot of conversation going on around direct-to-mobile handset satellite communications with a lot of money being poured into those, although they’re still very much in the development and experimental phase,” says Mumford.
According to Liquid’s latest survey, satellite operators have moved onto using 3GPP standards and are working on 5G standards to ensure that satellite is included within that standardisation across the board.
But while this is an element of enabling mobile communications, and is a critical aspect of where businesses are heading, it is not the biggest element in terms of satellite infrastructure development.
“The other part is global, low-latency, high-bandwidth coverage of the low Earth orbit constellation, as well developments for in-flight communications global maritime and mobility networks,” says Mumford. “This is where all of satellite development is at this point.”
A busy future
Mumford says that Liquid Telecom Satellite Services has “many projects” in the works. The first is the previously mentioned implementation of a virtualised platform.
“We are soon to meet with the supplier around our initial deployment of our first satellite ground system and its test implementation. We’re aiming to try and commercialise that early next year,” says Mumford. “It’ll be one of the first fully virtualised deployments globally, but it’ll certainly the first one in Africa.”
At the same time, the division is hard at work on an infrastructure build, specifically a “a new teleport that we’re in the midst of planning in Nigeria”.
Another exciting project will see group launch the first 100% service level agreement (SLA) uptime service in Africa, where it will provide a terrestrial and satellite service and a multi-orbit satellite service to the enterprise market which has a 100% uptime guarantee.
Apart from that, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services aims to keep pace with the demands from new service activations as it continues to expand in countries where it currently provides services.
“Ultimately, we’re very glad to be holding the torch in making satellite a critical part of Africa’s communications future,” says Mumford.