One would have thought that delegates attending this week’s Satcom conference in Sandton, north of Johannesburg, would have been in a gloomy mood about the future of satellite communications in Africa. In fact, quite the opposite was true.
Despite a raft of new undersea cables — Seacom, Eassy, Wacs, Glo-1, Teams, MainOne — that have already come on stream or will do so within the next 24 months, demand for satellite bandwidth to the continent is growing in leaps and bounds.
Three new satellites, together costing billions of rand, will be launched in the next 18 months to serve Africa’s markets. They include the New Dawn satellite, a joint venture between Andile Ngcaba’s Convergence Partners and Intelsat, and Astra 4B, a satellite commissioned by Europe’s SES Astra.
The satellite operators are hoping not only to provide services to broadcasters but increasingly also to offer telecommunications back-haul to operators, and even provide Internet access directly to consumers in areas that are not well served by fixed-line or mobile networks.
The irony is that the more fibre-optic submarine cables that are installed around the continent, the more demand grows for capacity on satellites, says Mike van den Bergh (pictured above), CEO of Vodacom subsidiary Gateway Communications.
“You’re seeing a lot of fibre going to the various [undersea cable] landing stations, and you’re seeing some fibre backbone and microwave networks being built in some countries,” Van den Bergh says. “But you’re seeing satellite being used to distribute it further in those countries and to provide backup to the fibre on the backhaul link.
“Even with multiple fibre systems in place, you still need satellite for in-country restoration,” he says.
Though operators in SA are spending billions of rand on national and metropolitan fibre networks, Van den Bergh says this investment is not going to happen on the same scale in other African markets, at least not in the short term. So, satellite connectivity will continue to play an important role in rural and even urban areas in Africa, he says.
Sharp reductions in the cost of bandwidth on satellites are also helping drive demand. “Newer satellites are much more efficient and you can deliver stronger service, much more cost effectively,” Van den Bergh says.
Nir Korman, vice-president for Africa sales at Israel-based VSat specialist Gilat Satellite Networks, says the new undersea fibre cables surrounding Africa are freeing up satellite bandwidth, which is now being used to provide other services.
Whereas before telecoms operators used satellite capacity to route calls and Internet traffic via Europe — because there were no cable systems serving large swathes of the continent — they can now use the freed-up bandwidth to offer redundancy to cable systems and to provide in-country services.
Increasingly, satellite is being used to provide backhaul for mobile operators, even in urban areas, because fibre is either not available, is unreliable, or is too expensive.
Gilat is intensifying its focus on Africa. It already has an office in SA, where its largest client is Telkom, and a technical site in Angola. Now it plans to open offices in Kenya and Nigeria to cope with demand in East Africa and West Africa.
Korman says he expects satellite bandwidth prices to plummet as new capacity comes on-stream in the next 18 months. New compression technologies and smart satellite topologies are also having a dramatic impact, he says. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral