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African Satellite Safari

By | October 1, 2007

      Evidence of satellite communications services can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In my family’s safari travel through Zambia and Botswana in August we saw numerous signs of satellite services in areas where other communications sources could be hard to obtain.

      We transited through Johannesburg, South Africa, to Livingstone, Zambia, to start the adventure. The Zambian side of Victoria Falls is near Livingstone, which let us watch the sun set over the mist of the falls. Driving through the town, we saw numerous satellite dishes, ranging from consumer television receive only dishes (TVRO) to a small number of 1.2-meter dishes and the occasional 2-meter VSAT serving businesses.

      After only a day in Zambia, we crossed the border at the short but chaotic Kazungula ferryboat service over the Zambezi River. Among the dozens of big trucks waiting to cross, several carried conspicuous bumper stickers claiming they were under constant satellite surveillance.

      There was no sign of satellite antennas during our three days of camping along the Chobe River, where a warthog strolled up to our breakfast and hyenas nosed around the tents at night. However, the first pride of lions that we saw snoozing under mapone trees included a young lioness with a radio collar that indicated she was being tracked by satellite, according to our guide.

      It took half a day of travel in the Land Rover across the soft sand roads to reach Savuti, then another half day to get to Moremi Northgate — partially due to a detour because a wooden bridge was out. A few of the concrete block houses along the way in isolated villages had small TVRO antennas.
      Outside the sprawling town of Kavimba, several buildings in the nicely painted blue-and-white community center sported one or even two TVROs. Kavimba itself offered a striking contrast between a tiny commercial building with a small VSAT antenna on one side of the road and a corral of thorn bushes enclosing cattle on the other side.

      Traveling onward to the Kalahari Desert, far from either electricity or TVROs, the impact of satellite services was nevertheless still felt. Our guide said the availability of GPS coordinates had opened the desert to travelers across almost trackless routes.

      In the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park we slept under the stars in an ancient dried up lake bed. The sky was enormous and there was nothing in every direction, but we were strangely comforted that our guide used his satellite phone to coordinate with the home office.

      Botswana has been blessed since its independence in 1966 by stable and prudent government, sound management of tourism resources and discovery of substantial diamond mines. Along with this stability, the country has created a good regulatory platform for communications services that permits the many satellite communications services we witnessed.

      A report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2001 portrayed Botswana as a case study for effective regulation, saying the country has won a “well-deserved reputation as one of the first [African countries] to establish an independent and effective regulatory body.”
      A subsequent report released by the ITU in 2004 on satellite regulations in developing countries identified Botswana’s strategic liberalization of VSAT services, noting its regime as a model for type approvals and license fees deemed to be “reasonable.”

      That same year, a report from the International Development Research Centre of Canada noted Botswana’s technology-neutral approach to satellite regulation as an example for other African governments to follow, to recognize that modern telecommunications services are provided by a wide range of technologies. The Botswana government has continued this trend with the release in early 2007 of a consultation report on further technology neutral regulatory practices in the era of convergence.

      Despite the numerous TVRO antennas, there remains regulatory controversy over satellite broadcasting. Botswana has no commercial television station, and it is likely that the dishes we saw were receiving signals delivered via satellite from neighboring South Africa. The Botswana National Broadcasting Board has tried for at least two years to regulate that signal as broadcasting, but it has lost several court appeals, the most recent just before we arrived.

      The evidence in Botswana during our ‘satellite safari’ showed that communications providers have found a way to rely on satellite in the most remote areas.

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