A Cornucopia Of Possibilities
The passion for 'everything Internet' that is consuming the rest of the world has not bypassed Africa. Across the continent, thousands of cyber cafes have opened their doors offering patrons affordable access to e-mail and the Web through on-premises PCs, plus something to eat and drink. In the business world, corporations large and small are demanding Internet access, from domestic startups to major multinationals.
"All you have to do is try to call a customer in Africa and you instantly realize that the existing telephone networks are unreliable and have poor quality," explains Hannon. "Therefore, the Internet has become an essential tool."
This sector is a prime target for Nigeria's Netcom Africa. It is a Lagos-based provider that combines "the benefits of satellite with the terrestrial wireless to deliver IP services to the last inch," says Brian Kim, Netcom Africa's business development sales and marketing manager.
"We are currently offering services on Ku-band over our iDirect VSAT platform," says Kim. "Most of the applications are focused around providing Internet connectivity to cyber cafes, SMEs and enterprises. These types of customers demand a platform that supports IP voice as well as data at the same time."
On the enterprise side, Polarsat is providing satellite data and voice communications to companies in Libya. "We are an approved VSAT provider to GPTC [Libya's national PTT] and have an extensive network in that country, primarily servicing the oil industry," says Richard McPhaden, Polarsat's vice president of marketing. "Our customers include Schlumberger, AGIP (oil and gas), IPLL (International Petroleum Libya Ltd.), Mediterranean Oil Services, UMM Al-Jawaby Oil Service Col. Ltd. and Lasmo Grand Maghreb."
Supporting Terrestrial Telecom Advances
Satellite is an essential element of Africa's cellular telephone rollouts. In fact, "The largest growth for Anacom's satellite transceivers in 2004 in Africa was for new GSM [mobile telephone] installations," Hannon says. The reason satellites are cashing in on Africa's wireless boom is due to pure market economics. "Typically, carriers start out by saturating urban African markets," David Hartshorn adds. "To continue growing, they then move into smaller communities in rural areas. It is cheaper to set up local cellular repeaters in those areas and connect them back to the main cellular network via satellite, than it would be to do so using terrestrial wire or wireless."
Satellite's backhaul capability also makes it a necessary component of the Wi-Fi and WiMax (wireless data up to 75 Mbps, up to 30 miles away) networks currently being planned in Africa. With a satellite solution on the front end, Wi-Fi and/or WiMax then cover the last mile. This model is viable because of satellite's ability to interconnect large distances quickly and economically making such business ventures worth exploring in Africa. Collectively, these technologies eliminate the need to build wired terrestrial networks.
Opening New Markets
Innovative vendors are finding new applications for satellite technology. For instance, Polarsat is installing a VSAT Plus II satellite communications network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of that country's new Air Traffic Control (ATC) system. In a project spearheaded by Navigation Aeronav International, the VSAT network will initially connect airports in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Mbuji-Mayi, Mbandaka, Ilebo and Kamina. Eventually, it will expand to link 15 DRC ATC facilities.
"This ATC network will provide the DRC's ATC centers with combined voice and data communications," says McPhaden. "They will also be retransmitting ground-to-air VHF broadcasters between air traffic controllers and aircraft. The signals will be routed by satellite over long distances to local transmission towers, so that controllers at remote facilities can talk to pilots throughout the country."
Sometimes innovation is simply a matter of deploying existing resources differently. For instance, Netcom Africa is fulfilling a "demand for providing 'grouped' bandwidth, where a customer can share a fixed amount of bandwidth throughout geographically dispersed sites," says Kim. "In these scenarios, the economic benefits of satellites far outweigh the advantages of fiber. Additionally, in many regions fiber is not an available option. Another segment that has seen growth is transaction-based systems such as lottery terminals, Point of Sale (POS) and ATMs. The modernization of these vertical industries has sparked a large demand for reliable [satellite] infrastructure across a large area."
Connecting Africa to the rest of the world is yet another promising satellite opportunity. The Greek/Cypriot consortium Hellas Sat, for example, recently redirected one of Hellas-Sat 2's satellite beams to cover South Africa, creating a link between that region and Europe. According to Hellas Sat CEO Christodoulos Protopapas, this connection has already borne financial fruit. "Working with the EBU, we transmitted the American elections to South Africa via Hellas Sat 2," he says. "We also have many South Africa clients now using this link on an occasional basis, to bring programming from Europe to their viewers." Eventually, Hellas-Sat hopes to sell Greek-originated programming into South Africa via satellite.