For government operations, satellite technology has empowered local and multinational African organizations to establish a significant foothold in today’s communication’s arena. Moving forward, expanding applications will predominantly drive Africa’s satellite-enabled businesses.
Today, falling prices for equipment and bandwidth have lead to greater penetration in the large, medium and small office/home office market segments. In turn, this has increased the accessibility of broadband, especially by African governments and multinationals.
There are a few ways in which Africans may access broadband via satellite. Governments, businesses and wealthy citizens install their own earth stations, using Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs). During these years, the costs of VSAT equipment began to drop, and prices for transmission services and transponder capacity also began to stabilize. But one of the key drivers that propelled satellite-enabled networks into a growth cycle for African organizations centered on the management, hardware and software add-ons, which increased dramatically the reach, reliability and quality of enterprise satellite networks.
Government Organizations Winning With Satellite
It was such advancements that today are enabling the modernization of the postal services in Kenya. In an effort to keep up with the changing pace of information delivery, the Postal Corporation of Kenya (PCK) adopted new technologies, lead by VSAT networks, as a key strategy in its business plan.
The VSAT technology was introduced in postal services in Kenya in January 2004 through a government-led initiative to better connect the country not only internally, but also to offer Internet access through cyber cafes, says Dan Ameyo, PCK’s postmaster general. “PCK was designated to implement the project for obvious reasons. It has one of the earliest networks through its 900 outlets spread across the country. Almost 80 percent of Kenya’s population resides in the rural areas and their preferred mode of communication to the rest of the country and the world is the post office,” says Ameyo.
The entire satellite network is controlled and monitored from a central hub in Nairobi. To date, more than 600 satellite dishes have been installed across Kenya, each dish accommodating three computers and a telephone system within the postal network. “The VSAT system installed by PCK covers the entire country. Likewise, roughly 400 outlets of the 900 countrywide have been installed with the full range of the system’s components,” he adds.
By incorporating the telephone system that facilitates communication between postal outlets across the country, Ameyo says that the network has reduced PCK’s expenditures on telephone services by nearly 50 percent.
More recently, another government development advanced with satellite technology at its forefront. Specifically, a $2.1 million project that is underway between Ethiopia and India to implement a pilot project for telemedicine and distance learning throughout Ethiopia.
The project is part of the Pan-African e-Network proposal, which was unveiled by the president of India, Dr. A.P. J Abdul Kalam at the Pan-African Parliament in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2004. The proposal calls for all 53 countries of the African continent to be connected with a satellite and fiber network.
Specifically, the satellite network, once expanded from Ethiopia, will have a satellite hub in several designated African countries linked to VSATs in other countries for providing these applications. Specifically, there will be 53 VSAT systems throughout the entire network connecting five universities to 53 learning centers and 10 specialty hospitals. The return link to India will be managed through already-allocated submarine cable bandwidth.
Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University will be the center for distance learning, and Black Lion Hospital, also in Addis Ababa, will be the center for telemedicine. Initially, these centers will be connected to remote centers located at Ethiopia’s Adama University and Adama Medical College.
But education is not the only driver for enhanced government networks. Financial operations are also being streamlined with satellite connectivity. In Uganda, for example, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) implemented a VSAT network to modernize its tax administration. The government agency has more than 50 locations throughout the country.
The network initially started with automating business processes in branch offices but lacked the ability to offer seamless connection between branches. This communication inability “deprived the URA from being able to closely supervise operations, promptly share and reconcile information, and significantly improve service delivery to taxpayers,” says Livingstone Ssebbanda, URA’s deputy of networks and hardware maintenance. “A robust, reliable URA wide area network was needed.”
In an effort to establish an advanced network platform, URA incorporated a VSAT network in 1998 at seven customs locations to improve communications between them and headquarters located in Kampala.
“URA is a target driven organization where field reports, operational and management information must be exchanged expeditiously. A lot of such information is spread throughout the country’s branch offices,” says Ssebbanda. “We needed a communication solution that would not only be available on a yearly basis, but around the clock. And VSAT system provided that solution.”
Today, URA has expanded from the initial seven locations equipped with C-band terminals to four locations equipped with Ku-band terminals. Considering an average cost for one terminal runs roughly $20,000, URA has reduced its overhead cost while not sacrificing its transmission requirements.
Another African country to embrace VSAT technology lies northeast of Madagascar. An installation of VSAT terminals at six outer islands in the Seychelles is supplying voice, fax and data services. The main hub for the network is located in Europe, at Whitehill Earth Station in the United Kingdom with a regional hub located at Victoria Earth Station in the Seychelles.
Specifically, the main VSAT system provides a domestic telecommunications network connecting the outer islands to the main island of Mahe’. The system also serves hotel complexes, the local administration and the public.
As part of the expansion of the VSAT network, a sub-network of VSATs have been added that serve an international commercial bank with its regional center of operations based in Reunion. It also has branches in four other islands in the Indian Ocean. Because of satellite-enabled technology, the archipelago is able to provide residents, businesses and visitors with seamless communications globally, among each island and with other African nations.
Regulations Still Challenging Robust Growth
Even though Africa continues to show promise for satellite-enabled services and more nations have deregulated telecommunication policies, intergovernmental issues continue to make this region a challenging place to do business. Each country has its own regulatory hurdles to clear, and its own central bureaucracy to win permission from. The problem remains that service providers need to create regional networks across many countries in order to be profitable. So having to go through all these approvals is a significant barrier to business.
Hurdles notwithstanding, the African market continues to hold significant promise for satellite service providers and equipment vendors. Granted, it is starting from a very small base, but the opportunities here for satellite are substantial. Vertical enterprise markets in Africa are slated to double within this decade along with satellite serving the ISP market, which is projected to grow by 80 percent by 2008, according to satellite industry reports.
With more than 3 million Internet users currently existing out of the continent’s population of more than 700 million, it is no wonder that broadband initiatives within Africa are driving satellite applications. Time will tell how the regulatory wrinkles get ironed out, but make no mistake — the demand for applications within Africa that satellite can deliver will continue in business importance. Nick Mitsis is the Editor of Satellite Business Solutions.