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Africa: Uniting The Continent Through Satellite Technology

By | November 10, 2001

      by Nick Mitsis

      If you pay close attention to Africa, you will notice a continent created from a collision of contrasts. On the one hand, its topography is visually stunning, but on the other, its infrastructure is crying for help. In fact there are huge disparities in income, health, education and governance caused in part by Africa’s paralyzed telecommunication state, cementing it on the wrong side of the information technology divide.

      Where telecommunications is the central nervous system of modern societies, Africa’s crippled system prevents its inhabitants from obtaining higher levels of education, health information and entertainment. This lack of information, unfortunately, is keeping the continent’s population from becoming a true market for the rest of the developed world.

      Deregulation Efforts Emerging

      But things are looking up. Africa continues to be a gold mine for technology advancements and one of the developing regions on which satellite executives are focusing. From deregulation among the various telecommunication infrastructures to expanded broadband satellite advancements, there is so much work going on in Africa that those affiliated with satellite technology have only witnessed the beginning. “The infrastructure is good only as long as content is alive,” says Dieudonné Kamara, regional sales manager, North America and Africa for Comsat Mobile Communications.

      Now, countries such as Nigeria, Botswana, Kenya, the Ivory Coast and South Africa are pushing the envelope as satellite ventures increase within the respective countries’ infrastructure. “There is a push on deregulation of the telecommunications infrastructure within these countries and the next year should [see some changes] materialize,” says Edward Cornely, director of channel sales for Comsat Mobile Communications. “We should see strong headway, particularly in South Africa, in Very Small Aperture Terminal technology (VSATs), asset tracking and telecommunications.”

      Even though governmental deregulation continues to make headway in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are still significant regulatory issues, not least of which include the largest economy in the region. “South Africa is disappointing,” says David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. “They have an opportunity to lead the region’s deregulation of VSAT-based service provision–a move that would immediately expand access to essential communications–but they are lagging behind most of their neighbors.”

      Hartshorn adds that on or near South Africa’s border, administrations in countries like Botswana, Zambia, Swaziland, Mozambique and Malawi have already initiated far-reaching progressive reform of the satellite sector.

      “As South Africa formulates and, eventually, implements satellite deregulation this would serve as a catalyst, first in Sub-Saharan Africa and eventually throughout the continent, leading not only to national-level deregulation but also to sorely-needed regional policy approaches,” Hartshorn says.

      The climate is indeed ripe for change. African administrations have gradually begun removing regulatory responsibility from the local monopolies; 46 percent of the African states have established new regulators, according to the ITU.

      The African Satellite Presence

      Satellite technology, however, is not new for Africa, and as more of the continent’s leaders accept that solid communications venues hold the key to Africa’s ability to compete in the global economy, satellite companies will continue to play a vital role.

      Intelsat Ltd., for example, has been operating in Africa for nearly four decades. Currently, the company is looking to expand its content carrying capabilities as the local broadcasters continue with their deregulation efforts and begin to expand themselves. “Local-into-local is high on the revenue scale, but broadcasters in one African country are looking to transmit not only to other African countries, but also to the United States and Europe as well,” says Harry Mahon, group director for Intelsat’s worldwide video services. “At present, we have eight countries that are specifically participating in news exchange and Intelsat is looking to offer services to expand that base. Africa is a good marketplace because broadcasting, Internet and telephony are active segments and hold the highest potential for growth.”

      And Intelsat’s African business ventures are not insignificant. In 2000, 16 percent of the company’s $1.1 billion revenue base came from its African and Middle Eastern operations.

      “Satellite provides the right solutions for Africa,” says Flavien Bachabi, Intelsat’s group director for Africa sales. “Right now we have 44 countries that use Intelsat not only for international and domestic voice services, but for data, Internet and video transmissions as well.”

      Last June, Intelsat opened its first regional office in Johannesburg, South Africa, not only to better serve the country but to enhance its relations with its clients throughout Africa. Now, Intelsat’s capacity has doubled between South Africa and the United States for South Africa’s two Internet service providers. Likewise, joint initiatives between South Africa and the existing telecommunications provider will offer corporate networks for leading industries, various domestic service applications and rural telephony. “Communications is a luxury in Africa and the Internet is a way to bridge the gap in remote areas,” says Bachabi. “In South Africa, we have around 100 Internet service providers waiting to be connected.”

      Worldspace, another international satellite service provider with strong African ties, inaugurated its service to the continent in 1999 offering more than 40 audio services of news, music, entertainment and educational programming through its Afristar satellite. “Service offering was not fully emphasized during the beginning stages and now it is,” says Anitha Soni, managing director of Worldspace South Africa. “We have just gotten to a stage on a pan-African front where the market has now realized the potential of what the Worldspace technology can bring and how effectively it can be used.”

      The Hot Markets

      Some of the vertical markets Worldspace caters to include education, health and entertainment. Recognizing that much of the African populous resides in rural areas, these markets became a big draw for Worldspace. “Education has become a major market segment for us because students need to have access to information during after school hours if they have the desire to further their education,” Soni says. In Kenya, for example, Worldspace says it has linked all the schools and provides them with audio teaching content.

      “Within the health market, we offer doctors access to the latest writing on health through the various medical journals,” Soni says. “We also have pharmaceutical companies that are very keen in getting out information on AIDS and malaria for the patients waiting to be tested. This serves as a supplemental educational healthcare program.”

      On the entertainment side, sports and religious programs are the most popular content for Worldspace delivery. “Audio sport is highly sought after and gospel is big in Africa,” Soni adds. “You could have more than 200,000 people belonging to a particular church movement and with our service, they can have their Sunday service broadcast through our system.”

      Broadband Initiatives

      Besides South Africa and Kenya, another hot country for satellite developments that executives are cultivating is Nigeria. Recently, Oracom, a developer of Web-based products for managing networked devices, began providing remote service-level management services to the Jigawa State Government of Nigeria. “We are managing all the broadband infrastructure in Nigeria to bring voice, video and data to the country,” says Tony Viola, vice president of marketing for Oracom.

      Oracom is working with the Telecommunication Systems Inc. (TCS) which is building a teleport in the region. The Jigawa State network they are building will provide global Internet access, satellite communications connectivity, state-wide and local wireless Internet distribution, and wireless distribution of multimedia content to 26 cities within Jigawa.

      TCS will manage the network remotely from its Annapolis Network Operations Center, using Oracom’s network management systems. “Our system will be deployed to manage and control critical network elements ranging from network servers to solar batteries,” says Viola. “Because Oracom systems use intelligent agents, management and control can be automated, giving TCS the ability to monitor the network remotely without having to have personnel on site at every location.”

      Scopus Network Technologies is also eyeing Africa for digital broadcast business development. “We have a good working relationship within the African market and the hot regions are southern Africa,” says Ovadia Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing for Scopus Network Technologies. “I would say that two or three years ago, nobody was even thinking about digital satellite broadcasting but now they are.”

      Scopus has found that because of the European presence in Africa business relations are growing and the company is developing digital turnaround applications and providing a package that enables an operator to build a system that can provide service to cover local areas. “We definitely see a trend in Africa among the digital broadcast arena,” Cohen says.

      Scopus’ MPEG-2 and DVB video distribution encoders are designed with an open architecture so, as the content distributed to Africa changes, Scopus’ equipment will follow the ebb and flow. “This is important because we have seen the market change throughout the past three years and we can be ready to accept the new trends that are forthcoming,” Cohen says. “Almost everyone is following the digital revolution and the platforms that Scopus is developing will allow the local content providers to take more action as technology develops with a small investment.”

      A Brighter Future Ahead

      With business opportunities continuing to surge throughout Africa, the satellite industry will continue to answer Africa’s distress call and empower the continent with 21st century information technology. “We are seen to a large extent as trendsetters,” Soni says. “We have spent a lot of time dealing with and building a relationship within the various countries of Africa and only plan to continue to do so.” v

      Nick Mitsis is Via Satellite’s Associate Editor.

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