Beaming across the continent
Libby Barr, COO of satellite operator Avanti, tells Capacity’s Natalie Bannerman about the company’s plans for connecting the unconnected across Africa.
With an extensive satellite network presence across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Avanti is working hard to bridge digital divides in many of its markets. Africa, in particular, presents a unique opportunity for the company as an emerging market ripe for investment. But while it offers opportunities there are also challenges, which Libby Barr, Avanti’s chief operating officer, gets us up to speed with.
“It is estimated that there’s about a billion people across Africa that are still unconnected, and each country is very different and unique. But at the same time, some of the big problems that they have are very similar,” Barr says.
Literacy, the cost of internet services, access to power and limited infrastructure for digital services are among some of the most common factors.
“At Avanti, we see ourselves as having the right combination of infrastructure and connectivity to meet those connectivity challenges,” she says.
Fresh from a work trip to Niger, Barr says that one of the things she most frequently heard during her visit was that there was one doctor for roughly every 20,000 people, emphasising the need, from a connectivity standpoint, for telemedicine services. There are also shortages in teachers, so connecting schools in rural areas could help to solve a big problem and have a significant positive impact on lives.
Avanti is taking a holistic approach to its investments in the emerging markets. It is not just putting satellites in the sky, but is also present on the ground.
“We’ve put ground, Earth stations across Africa,” says Barr. “We’ve got teams in Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, and we’re just in the process of building a new gateway in Senegal. That makes us quite different, because it means that we’re there and there’s an infrastructure in-country, as well as people on the ground who can really help to make those deployments happen.”
Since joining the world of satellites almost five years ago, Barr says the industry and its relationship to satellites has changed a lot.
“We’ve refocused the strategy of the business around the customer,” Barr says. “The industry has typically been about ‘these are our satellites’ and ‘this is our technology’ – take it or leave it. But we have focused in on the services that are required by the customer and started to build that out.”
Much of Avanti’s internal capability is also very different, with a large number of its senior management coming from telcos. Barr herself spent 20 years at Vodafone and 10 years at BT.
“So, when we’re working with the telcos, we can really understand their challenges and help them to build out solutions and then connect to the satellite infrastructure,” she says.
This greater collaboration between satellite companies and telcos has also been bolstered during the last two to three years, particularly in Africa, where Barr says “governments are pushing them to focus on deploying from a rural perspective” which is affecting demand.
When it comes to the security of its network, Barr says “it’s the weakest link in the chain that determines the overall strength”, adding that security tops its list of priorities and is “something we’re incredibly vigilant about for our customers”, so it is built into Avanti’s solutions during planning and design.
With increasing developments in the applications of satellite in cellular and mobile connectivity and the internet of things means these areas have a lot of promise, but there are other areas of innovation that Avanti is focusing on.
“We’re delivering satellite solutions across many verticals, for the carriers of course, but also maritime, aero, oil and gas, so we think we think about it more broadly,” she says.
Leveraging her time at Vodafone and BT, Barr offered Avanti someone with a deep grounding in telecoms, and a strategic focus on the fact that what the company is ultimately delivering to customers is connectivity.
She also credits the company’s diversity with helping her build up her career, and the capabilities of the businesses that she’s worked for. To ensure Avanti stays ahead of the curve, she says that recruiting new talent must involve “introducing people from other industries or from other backgrounds into the business”.
As she is responsible for Avanti’s operations in Africa, for the next five years for Barr and her team will be concentrating on connecting 10,000 villages and schools by providing 2G, 3G and 4G services in their areas. She says this reflects the aims of the company at large, which are about “driving social impact, economic development and helping our customers to do that in their countries”.