How effective is satellite for connecting Africa?

05 April 2023

Martin Jarrold, vice president international
programme development, GVF

Martin Jarrold, vice president international
programme development, GVF

Phrasing questions in terms of ‘connecting Africa’ suggests a certain uniformity; not addressing the complexities and variety of connectivity requirements and variability of the potential of satellite in meeting those needs. Two things that can be stated, however, are that Africa has specific requirements that differ from those of developed markets outside the continent, and that effectiveness can be assessed using different parameters, with three – interconnected – examples of such parameters being connectivity objective, cost, and applications focus/reach.

When discussing connectivity in Africa the focused objective for satellite has been bridging the (generalised) digital divide. This divide is not uniform continent-wide, and there are huge differences between different regions of the continent and between different countries within the continent. According to Statista, within Africa internet access varies greatly, with nearly 70% of the population living in the southern region connected in 2022, whereas the online penetration rate was less than 30% in both East and Central Africa. Additionally, connectivity differs between countries. Morocco had an internet penetration of approximately 84.1% in 2022, the highest among African nations, whereas only 7% of the population in Eritrea had access to an internet connection.

The predominant adoption of mobile devices has characterised internet use in Africa, with MNOs positioning themselves as the leading connectivity option. In 2021, nearly 70% of the web traffic on the continent took place via mobile, and whilst African nation MNOs and telcos are major customers for satellite services, this is very different from adding, promoting and selling a satellite service as part of a business to consumer product.

Of course, in African nations – just like in those parts of more developed country markets which suffer their own variations on the digital divide – mobile does not reach everywhere, failing to cover areas where either the business financials do not tally, or where the degree of geographical remoteness or topographical complexity prevents mobile tower deployment, and where access to reliable power supplies is uncertain. Delivering broadand services to meet the task of bridging the digital divide in these remote areas is satellites’ mass-market (albeit a numerically much smaller one than the urban/suburban/high population density mass-market with access to mobile services) penetration forté, addressing the internet access needs of schools, health centres, SMEs, and government, as well as WiFi backhaul.

Connecting remote and rural schools is a satellite imperative because it not only allows children to access online learning, but schools can become a community’s communications ‘hub.’ For medical clinicians in many African nations it was the COVID-19 pandemic which highlighted weaknesses in healthcare infrastructures for populations in rural areas located far from clinical facilities. It is only smart satellite services which can offer the necessary speed and bandwidth to support seamless video and voice calls while offering other forms of specialist communication required for the clinicians to be able to interact with, and diagnose, patients.

The proportion of the Africa population living within areas covered by mobile broadband networks is about 85%, but nearly 50% of the population remain offline due to the high relative cost of mobile data. Solutions to close the digital divide must meet the challenge of falling within local consumer affordability parameters. For satellite to reduce the divide across all the communities of the nations of the African continent its broadband service offerings must meet something like the ‘affordability threshold’ suggested by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

This parameter varies across the continent and within nations, but sometimes an overall aggregated view can help to simplify the scale of a complex issue. The A4AI and the ITU conducted a study in 2020 which revealed that only 14 African nations met this ‘affordability threshold’ – i.e., 1Gb costing less than 2% of average monthly household income. According to the study, the actual continent-wide average cost for 1Gb in 2020 was almost three-times that at 5.7% of the average monthly income.

In terms of effectiveness measured by applications focus/reach it is useful to look at how satellite readily meets various user markets’ end-to-end applications requirements. Satellite services offer ubiquitous signal coverage, very high network reliability, and whilst service delivery can be entirely independent of terrestrial infrastructure, delivery of end-to-end application-focused service solutions may beneficially be achieved via in-country integration with terrestrial networks and via specialised niche in-country providers. Taking the example of the retail market, end-to-end retail solutions require that satellite services be integrated with the customer enterprise core networks and being seamlessly integrated with enterprise architectures such as SD-WAN.

N.B. I am grateful to the ‘Space in Africa’ research report (commissioned by ‘Via Satellite’) ‘The State and Future of LEO Satellite Internet Connectivity in Africa’ which explores the connectivity landscape in Africa, and how LEO providers may change it in the future, for information and data points covered in the above answer.