How is the space domain connecting Africa?

05 April 2023

Africa has lagged on the adoption of satellite technologies, however, Amy Saunders notes that today, nations are increasingly expanding their sovereign capabilities

Satellites have long proven effective at delivering reliable, secure communications from anywhere on Earth. While pricing has traditionally been prohibitive for many countries, a recent leap forward in technology has made construction, launch and operation more affordable and accessible than ever before.

Coinciding with a world struck by digital transformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, space-based communications are now becoming a priority for developing nations. As per the ‘African Space Industry Annual Report 2022,’ the continent’s space sector is booming, valued at US$19.49 billion last year. African countries allocated US$534.9 million for their space programmes in 2022, up 2.24% on 2021.

While the continent has not been deeply embedded in the space industry historically, African nations have manufactured more than a handful of satellites for a range of applications, mostly beyond traditional communications like IoT and Earth observation (EO), which are expected to translate into improved socioeconomic and environmental outcomes.

“At present, 10 sub-Saharan counties have launched satellites to space, with another five northern African nations also having done so,” says Martin Jarrold, vice president international programme development, GVF. “Of the approximately 40 African nation satellites in orbit, only eight are for satcoms with the other 32 divided between EO and technology demonstration.”

Satellite sovereignty

Satellite sovereignty is a topic that comes up again and again, but with large swathes of Africa provided with satellite coverage from international actors, how important is sovereignty to African nations?

Very, according to David Oni, research analyst at NSR, an Analysys Mason Company, who opines that “apart from a sense of national prestige, it can also serve as an avenue for technology transfer, hence boosting indigenous technology which can have a ripple effect across several sectors of the economy.”

While satellite sovereignty allows a nation to be independent for their telecommunications needs, it is not always feasible or in the national interest, says Andreas Voigt, senior engineer, EUTELSAT Service Operations; and director, the Satcoms Innovation Group (SIG): “some nations in Africa are able to afford to have a sovereign system by the help of a donor country, like Nigeria or Angola. Some can finance it themselves, like Algeria or Egypt. Other African nations trust third parties more than their own to provide capacity.”

Martin Coleman, partner, COLEM Engineering, believes that right now, satellite sovereignty is not a priority for African nations: “it is not where the money should be spent. Africa needs flexible ground infrastructure now to ensure connectivity access both terrestrially and from space. If it is to be a connected continent, then the ground is where the real investment should be taking place.”

National pride may play an important role in decision-making, however, enhanced data security, independent communications capabilities, and custom applications are what bring sovereign satellites into their own: “sovereign communications satellite capabilities for Africa can provide ‘tailored’ solutions peculiar to the region,” says Oni. In Africa, these might include IoT applications for agriculture, mining, utilities, defence, as well as enabling remote and rural communications among a disperse population.

One such example, Nigeria’s DELSAT-1, was launched in December 2022 to enhance the operational capacity of the Nigerian armed forces. Chief of Defence Administration, Rear Adm. Nnamdi Muogilim said that the satellite will create a robust indigenous space competence capable of producing and utilising space assets to meet the operational requirements of the military and other security agencies.

“Most African nation-owned satellites are still designed abroad; and whilst there is a process of transition underway, with the continent joining in with the new ‘space race,’ so far the transition has been towards EO satellites rather than satcoms,” explains Jarrold.

Having reliable and secure access to telecommunications services and internet connectivity is essential for everything from economic and infrastructural development to education and healthcare, shares Voigt. “In countries like in Africa where infrastructure including transport and electric supply is poor, particularly in rural parts, satellite services have a vital role to play in connecting people. Overall, I would say that although a long-term aim of some African nations may be to have sovereign satellite capabilities, in the short to medium term, having reliable and secure telecommunications services is more important,” concludes Voigt.

Challenges remain

One of the limiting factors in the wider adoption of satellite for communications has been cost, which has tended to be prohibitive for most applications. Despite the sharp fall in prices in recent years, “they are still high in Africa relative to the amount of disposable income available to people, when compared to other countries,” says Voigt.
However, good news is on the horizon: “the new style VHTS satellites have the potential to bring down the production cost per Gb significantly, making satellite bandwidth much more affordable. This development has the potential to make satcom services a valid alternative to terrestrial fixed services,” explains Voigt. “For much of Africa, mobile broadband services are non-existent outside large cities, and while availability of narrowband may improve, mobile broadband with speeds over 10Mbps will most likely not be available ubiquitously in the next 5-10 years, if at all.”

Jarrold opines that, for satellite to reduce the digital divide across all of Africa, its broadband service offerings must meet the first challenge of falling within local consumer household affordability parameters. “The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the ITU conducted a study in 2020. It revealed that only 14 African nations met their ‘affordability threshold’ of 1Gb costing less than 2% of average monthly household income, whereas the actual continent-wide average cost for one gigabyte in 2020 was 5.7% of the average monthly income,” says Jarrold.

While terrestrial infrastructure remains less expensive on a cost per bit level in most regions, its deployment is often price prohibitive due to small, dispersed communities, or indeed challenges arising from the natural landscape itself, rendering satellite the only viable option. However, even the build and maintenance of local ground infrastructure for satellite can be challenging due to “the lack of transport infrastructure, because it can be difficult for engineers and equipment to reach the sites in a timely manner,” says Voigt. “The lack of availability of a continuous, reliable electricity supply is another major challenge.”

Moreover, satellite operators looking to provide services require a strong local presence. “It is difficult to gain customer trust if the operation is fully run from a country outside of Africa,” explains Voigt. “You need to have local knowledge, regional language spoken, and sound relationships with local providers and retailers, also inside their ethnic groups.”

Unlocking opportunities

One possible game-changer for satellite communications in Africa, named by NSR as the ‘largest opportunity in satcom’s history,’ is the direct-satellite-to-device, which has a market forecast of US$66.8 billion in 10-year revenues versus US$38.5 billion for wholesale non-geo satellite services.

“Satellite-to-device will unlock extraordinary opportunities for the satellite industry in Africa,” says Oni. “Although the adoption rate will depend on several factors, such as: cost, reliability, terrestrial alternatives, policy makers, market dynamics, etc.”

Jarrold agrees: “certainly, in terms of people no longer being out of touch or requiring a specialised device to connect, using mobile/cellular spectrum for satellite-to-device services makes sense in countries with large unserved rural and remote populations, such as within the African continent.”

As well as providing easy-to-use, reliable connectivity for those who need it the most, “it will enhance MNO access to new customer segments through satellite communications, providing satellite operators the opportunity to secure connectivity for existing mobile customers, when roaming out of range of their terrestrial mobile signal,” shares Oni.

Voigt says that MNOs will likely be happy to enable services via satellite for an extra fee as additional upsell for people who roam outside of their original service coverage areas. “However, the percentage of individuals who will be able to pay for that in Africa will be marginal and bodies such as governmental, military or professional services will usually already have connectivity via satellite in the conventional way.”

The ability to communicate via satellite through standard consumer mobile phones will reduce barriers to entry and help bridge the digital divide, while MNOs stand to gain by boosting customer satisfaction, reducing costs, and unlocking new revenue opportunities. NSR expects average monthly users to reach 386 million by the end of the decade. While satellite-to-device will not rival terrestrial performance, with low data rates and high latencies than would be required to, the technology comes into its own for applications like voice, messaging, IoT and global coverage – all of which will help connect those in remote and rural communities.

Voigt holds a less optimistic view: “it cannot provide that ever-present connectivity that users expect to have with their phone. Satellite direct to device does not work indoors without something in between like a repeater cell. Nor does it work well where there is an obstruction in between the satellite and phone such as buildings or trees. It will also not work well in a car without radiating the car passengers intensively for the return channel connectivity.”

The most prominent of the recently announced satellite-to-device services are typically offering SOS-type alerts and text messaging only: “this is not enough. Customers want more than basic emergency services,” states Jarrold. “The big question is, ‘depending on cost in more price sensitive markets, will these functionalities be widely taken up by the end user?’ In Africa’s developing markets millions cannot necessarily afford high-end Apple and Android smartphones and, therefore, can’t access IP messaging.”

We need to learn from the experiences and achievements of Iridium, Orbcomm and Globalstar in the early 2000s, says Voigt: “it is possible to improve the physical layer by some dB with software coding and modulation. However, when inside or if close to obstructions, there is several 10s of dBs of attenuation that need to be overcome. A handheld terminal will never be able to achieve that with its fractal antenna, battery capacity and lifetime, etc. so certain conditions will always apply such as needing to be outside, with an unobstructed view to the satellite and to avoid rapid movement changes. These requirements mean that many of the potential commercial use cases are therefore non-applicable.”

A space-based future?

“Satellites will be instrumental in bridging the digital divide across the continent, and the rest of the world,” says Oni, so it’s no surprise that the African Space Industry report forecasts a growth rate of 16.16% to US$22.64 billion by 2026.

“Satellite provides a vital layer of communications providing us all with safety, disaster recovery, medical/healthcare, tracking, and, of course, navigation through the various GPS services available. Satellite delivers this totally and is a high reliability network for such cases,” says Coleman.

In line with digital transformation efforts, “true broadband internet connections (>10Mbps) will be important to small/medium size business development and working. Users require a stable service, and this means highly available at good throughput rates for the price they can pay,” shares Voigt. “In urban areas, in most cases, MNOs will be able to deliver that via 5G and its future developments. However, in remote and underserved regions, satellite services will certainly play an important role in the coming years.”

Affordability will continue to increase in leaps and bounds, and “satellite communications will continue to play an important role in connecting Africa, especially in remote and underserved areas where terrestrial options may not be available or may be cost-prohibitive,” reports Oni.

“Against the backdrop of the challenges faced by terrestrial wireless systems, for example the MNOs facing static revenue trends, NGSO satellite systems will have the capacity to bring more people online in Africa in the coming years,” asserts Jarrold. “These operators have been busy acquiring spectrum rights with various of Africa’s national administrations. Connecting the unconnected by 2030 remains the objective, but still there remains the question as to whether the NGSOs will be able to translate new capacity into actual opportunity to be realised through affordability.”