Do Satellite Operators Want To Serve Africa?

By | June 1, 2008 | Editor's Note, Telecom

I stepped off an airplane in Washington a few weeks ago in a little bit of a haze. Some of that could be attributed to landing at 6 a.m. following an 18-hour flight from South Africa. But the majority of my confusion stemmed from the events that took place during Satcom Africa 2008.
This was only my second show in Johannesburg, but I am well schooled on the overriding issue that dominates year after year: When will transponder prices drop enough to foster widespread growth of communications services in Africa?
For years, the loudest complaints raised by attendees have been over the perceived high cost of transponder capacity. The opening session of the 2008 show was not different, compelling a representative from one global operator in the audience to defend the prices offered by the major players. “A great deal of effort has been made by satellite operators to lower transponder prices,” the official said. “… Show me what else we are supposed to do.”
This year, delegates also had the chance to press their concerns before a pair of domestic operators. But instead of facing the same transponder pricing questions, representatives from Nigcomsat and Rascom received a round of applause simply for placing the first African-operated satellites in orbit. Apparently continental pride trumped real concern over prices.
The issue of capacity was raised by broadcasters, who said they simply cannot find any. Most of the satellite operators said their hands were tied because the capacity they have is being snapped up, and they simply have nothing else to offer. This explanation did not pacify the broadcasters, , who would like to see new satellite operators enter the market.
But this also poses a problem, according to Shawkat Ahmed, chief commercial officer for Yahsat, as the new players willing to enter the fray are being hampered by the established operators, which hold many of the orbital slots and spectrum and have filed plans for spacecraft but have not yet put anything in orbit. These “paper satellites” are keeping companies that want to put real spacecraft in orbit from doing so, Ahmed says.
But while the satellite operators are dealing with all these subplots, they also need to pay attention to other competitors, which are willing not only to take potential business in Africa but also come to Satcom Africa to discuss their plans.
A company dubbed Seacom was on the exhibit floor laying out its plans for a fiber-optic cable connecting the East Coast of Africa to Europe, claming that once the cable is operational, satellite will not be needed in that region of Africa. This would be fine with Alintuma Nsambu of the Ministry of State for ICT for Uganda, who told the delegates that African governments are seeking such alternatives for providing communications services because “satellites are regarded as an old and expensive technology.”
And even though the satellite industry won the global C-band battle with WiMax players, many countries in Africa plan to allow WiMax deployments. According to Rob Kubik of Motorola and the WiMax Forum, the industry is ready to move forward in Africa: “The reality is that WiMax will be deploying in” C-band, he said.
The message to satellite players is that strong demand for communications still exists throughout Africa, but if they are not willing to provide it, others will.

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