By James Careless
Historically, it has been a challenge for satellite executives to profitably expand their business in Africa, despite the fact that satellite footprints blanket the continent. Add Africa's underdeveloped terrestrial networks, and one has to ask, "Why isn't this market a satellite provider's playground?"
The answer is two-fold: Politically, the combination of authoritarian regimes, government problems and intermittent warfare has made Africa treacherous turf for investors. Financially, the continent's economic challenges and environmental disasters have resulted in a consumer base that wants to pay for communications services, but cannot afford it.
According to the Global VSAT Forum (GVF)'s report Open and Closed Skies: Satellite Access in Africa, "access to the Internet and other telecom services [in Africa] has been held back not only by restrictive regulatory frameworks, but also antiquated infrastructure, high fixed costs, low economic and investment activity, diverse geography, language and culture and much more." But the winds of change are blowing across Africa, says David Hartshorn, the GVF's secretary general. "The research we did in compiling this report shows that - more than any other emerging region of the world today - Africa is moving to take advantage of the benefits provided by satellite-based communications," he says, adding that this is most evident when one looks to the extent that African governments have opened up their markets to competitive satellite providers.
"For instance, seven years ago there were no competitive satellite providers in sub-Saharan Africa," Hartshorn says. "Today, almost every single sub-Saharan administration has introduced partial or complete competition for satellite services in their countries. In turn, we are seeing a blossoming of domestic satellite service providers in Africa. These include companies such as Netcom Africa in Nigeria; Internet Gabon; Egyptsat; and Pronet in Zambia, Malawi and now Botswana."
Why Africa Is A Land Of Satellite Opportunity
The move by Africa's governments to open their satellite markets to third-party and foreign providers is due to many factors; one of which is lobbying by the GVF and its members. Another reason is that "African governments now understand that improved telecommunications will help them achieve their policy goals," Hartshorn adds. "This includes everything from improved education and health care to economic growth and increased employment. As well, improved telecom will make Africa more attractive to foreign investors, which in turn will translate into even more prosperity and a stronger tax base."
Some parts of Africa are more open than others. "In general, West Africa still offers the best growth potential as the [western] countries are familiar with satellite technology and regulations have improved," says Mary Ellen Hannon, Anacom's vice president of sales for Africa. "East Africa is gradually opening and will begin to grow for us over the next year."