Big Interview

Opportunities in African satellite

Jean-Luc Vuillemin NEW.jpg

Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Orange’s executive vice-president of international networks discusses Africa’s potential and appetite for collaborations between satellite operators and telcos with Saf Malik

As Orange’s continues to expand in Africa, the operator is working to ensure the continent has access to technology that will help it achieve its vast potential.

Every year, Orange invests €1 billion in Africa and the Middle East (MEA), another region it has targeted for expansion. It has deployed 4G services in 17 countries across MEA. The region has continued to deliver Orange’s strongest growth – the operator’s Q2 results for MEA reported a 7.2% growth rate. Christel Heydemann, Orange’s group chief executive, said MEA’s strong performance was fuelled by growing demand for mobile data, the development of the enterprise market, and an increased appetite for fibre.

“Our solid retail market performance in Europe, Africa and the Middle East has compensated for the difficulties that have weighed on our enterprise business,” she added.

Providing fixed and mobile internet connectivity remains the cornerstone of the group’s network connectivity strategy for Africa and Europe. However, satellite technology is beginning to present the group with additional and complementary opportunities that could help meet its ambition to provide connectivity to as many people as possible.

Africa’s sheer size, the diversity of its terrain and the dispersal of its communities across a vast rural, and sometimes inhospitable, landmass presents a “lack of technology” challenge for Orange, as the technologies currently available may not provide the solutions to provide connectivity across the continent.

The International Telecommunication Union’s Fact and Figures 2021 report stated that only 13% of Africa’s population were connected, at a time when technology is at an advanced stage and the popularity of satellite connectivity is the highest it has ever been. That Africa’s digital divide has not yet been closed indicates there is still a huge population that is underserved. And it is operators like Orange that hold the keys to changing this.

Jean-Luc Vuillemin, executive vice-president of international networks at Orange, says that the operator has signed various agreements in Africa to address these challenges and close the digital divide.

One such agreement is a memorandum of understanding with US-based satellite firm AST SpaceMobile to test its satellite coverage in a country within Africa. The test will use AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite which beams directly to phones via 3G frequencies. Orange sees satellites as a way to plug coverage gaps in African markets, and this test could pave the way for a full rollout of the technology across its footprint.

Multimodal connectivity technology is integral to Orange’s strategy for Africa. Convergence in locations where its submarine, cable, satellite and mobile networks meet provides the most comprehensive means of providing connectivity.

“A country like Senegal is a prime example of where we can illustrate this strength because, in Senegal, we have a very strong mobile network combined with a strong terrestrial network and an optical terrestrial network as well,” Vuilleman adds.

Earlier this year, it was announced that Orange and its Senegalese subsidiary Sonatel, a fixed-line operator, are working with SES to create the first African gateway for the O3b mPOWER constellation.

Orange first adopted O3b mPOWER in 2020 and intends to begin the service from the constellation to the Central African Republic. Orange’s plan is to deploy the technology in the Senegalese territory of Gandoul, which will enable it to deliver low-latency and cloud-optimised connectivity services to the rest of Africa.

“This partnership will add a major new component to Orange’s mission to build intelligent, open networks in order to foster usage and access to digital technologies to the greatest number of people,” Vuillemin said.

Historical challenges

For more than a century, countries in Africa have been the subject of direct foreign investment in order to extract and export the continent’s natural resources. However, in recent years the tide has turned, and money is now being pumped into telecommunication services in the continent.

Africa’s potential is slowly being brought to fruition, and the region promises to become a major economic player. The continent’s population is heading towards two billion and the collective GDPs of its countries currently stands at around US$2.6 billion, with US$1.4 billion of this attributed to consumer spending. The increased spending suggests that the people of Africa are ready to spend on necessities, such as connectivity.

Additionally, the economy of Africa as a continent has, on average, grown by 5% per annum during the last decade, according to research from Future Agenda, and this is only set to increase as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the continent’s economy continues to grow, it has not been plain sailing for Orange in terms of providing satellite-based services there. The operator has faced several challenges to enhancing its network, partly due to satellite’s history in the continent.

“Satellite in Africa did not have the best reputation because, in the past, the network had long latency, was expensive, and was not as flexible as it could have been,” Vuillemin says.

The cost and availability of other technologies compared to what satellite was able to offer helped form a perception of satellite being an inferior and expensive telecommunications technology.

Maintaining efficient cost controls will be key to Orange’s expansion plans, and Vuillemin says the operator recognises that there are specific situations where subsidised connectivity will be important.

Along with cost control, quality and continuity of service will be key for Orange, as several satellite firms are jockeying for positions on the continent.

Despite these issues, satellite is showing more promise, especially with improvements to its technology, and new opportunities and benefits becoming available with new constellations.

Orange’s multimodal strategy, of which satellite is a component, has been strengthened by its Djoliba network in West Africa. The construction of this fibre optic backbone was finished in 2020. It brought together Orange’s terrestrial and submarine cable infrastructures, and is now live in 17 countries in Africa. This means traffic is localised and can be received from within the continent, rather than abroad.

Vuillemin is firm in his belief that Orange can maximise the potential of satellite as part of its multimodal strategy in Africa. This, he says, is already showcased through many the technology’s many innovations, which will allow Orange to strengthen its position in Africa, and in other regions where the group is planning to deploy it.

Increased collaboration

Satellite is an area in telecoms that is moving “very, very fast” Vuillemin says and he is confident it will prove to be a fruitful investment. And he believes that beyond Africa, this potential can be realised through use cases created through “very strong collaborations” between satellite firms and traditional operators.

This is reflection of the worldwide industry, which is seeing partnerships being established between telcos and satellite operators across major markets. In recent times, TIM has begun working with Eutelsat and AT&T with OneWeb. Not one to be left behind, Orange has been developing meaningful connections within the satellite sphere too.

In June 2020, Orange partnered with Eutelsat to provide satellite connectivity throughout its native France. According to Vuillemin, such partnerships are important, as the sector has realised the potential of 5G.

“[Satellite operators] understand that 5G isn’t just a mobile technology and the telecoms industry is moving further into softwarisation, meaning there are possibilities for integrated services,” Vuillemin says. “If we support satellite and develop fixed networks, there’s a huge possibility for cooperation.”

What could be a “game changer”, Vuillemin adds, is the establishment of direct connections between satellites and mobile phones. This technology is being developed by some companies such as Virginia-based Lynk, which says it has successfully demonstrated ordinary, unmodified telephones that can connect to satellite internet services.

Mobile phone penetration in Africa has been increasing steadily. A study from the GSMA showed the number of new internet users in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to continue increasing at a significant rate, from 303 million in 2020 to 474 million in 2025.

Vuillemin says that Orange also strongly believes in the use of laser communications in satellite, which could increase bandwidth by a factor of between 10 to 100, while reducing the size and weight of communication tools and the electrical power they need.

“This is a military technology that is being used in military planes, and which the industry is now looking to develop in-flight use,” says Vuillemin. “We’ve signed agreements to test the possibility of establishing a direct laser which is, in terms of speed, comparable to what you have with optical fibre.”

Vuillemin says there are dozens more use cases that open up several possibilities for the future of connectivity. And that there are more breakthroughs in satellite that will be realised in the coming years.

“We really believe in satellite and think that it can be something very useful,” Vuillemin says.

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