Fibre-optic infrastructure remains limited in Africa

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Michel de Rosen,Chairman and CEO Eutelsat.  

The use of Satellite Connectivity has been disputed severally due to the roll out of fibre optic cables that offer high speeds of Internet. Fibre laying in Africa has mostly been restricted to big cities. But World Bank data estimates that only 37% of Africa’s population actually live in these urban areas, still leaving a larger population who live in the rural areas unconnected leaving Satellite as the most effective way to reach rural areas, and thus the majority of the population.

In October 2015 Facebook announced a deal with French satellite operator Eutelsat Communications, to get more people in Africa online by creating a system employing satellites, Internet gateways and terminals. In reaching out to large areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are beyond the range of fixed and mobile networks on the ground, the two companies said they will “pursue their ambition to accelerate data connectivity for the many users deprived of the economic and social benefits of the Internet.”

Below is an excerpt from an interview carried out with Michel de Rosen, chairman & CEO, Eutelsat on the uptake of satellite connectivity in rural Africa:

The roll-out of fibre optic cable projects in Africa has led to the perception that the role of satellite in providing connectivity is no longer important. What’s your take on this?

No one disputes that the roll-out of fibre-optic cables in Africa is already improving the situation of hundreds of thousands of people by making high-speed internet access a reality.  Fibre-optic infrastructure remains however limited when it comes to cover a continent which is 30 million square km and where half of the population lives in rural areas.

Connections to international backbones are restricted to big cities and national backbones needed to carry local and international traffic are still in infancy. Decades would be required to build them, resulting in Africa reaching the lowest internet penetration rate in the world as it accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s fixed-broadband subscriptions and 19% for mobile-broadband according to the United Nations.

This means there is significant opportunity for satellite, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The satellite’s seamless coverage sweeping across large geographic areas leaves nobody outside the digital revolution, by providing broadband services to any location in Africa. Satellites are ideal for fast and cost-efficient connectivity for users in rural and suburban areas. Affordable and widespread satellite connectivity is vital for complementing terrestrial infrastructure. With new-generation broadband satellite services, Africa has an opportunity to tap its latent potential and access social and economic growth.

In which African countries does Eutelsat have existing partnerships? Give a brief highlight about the partnerships / projects.

We have been active in providing satellite capacity to African countries, both on the telecoms and broadcast segments. As Africa accelerates the transition to digital TV, over the last two years we have witnessed the highest ever demand for broadcast services in Africa, and the prospects for further growth are strong. Satellites are a core infrastructure in the digital broadcasting environment, both for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and direct-to-home (DTH) reception. We work with all major pay-TV providers in Africa, including MultiChoice, Azam, Canal+ in Indian Ocean, StarTimes, Strong Media, ZAP, UBM EG and Zuku TV.

Besides TV, we see increasing interest from Mobile Network Operators for complementing their networks in rural areas with our satellite connectivity.

Eutelsat is also already present in sub-Saharan Africa with already existing broadband services. Our new generation of satellites designed for Africa will further increase speeds and user experience as a complement to terrestrial networks in order to build inclusive digital societies.

We are also involved in different projects in the area of corporate social responsibility. The Dstv Eutelsat Star Awards, which are a product of a partnership between Eutelsat and MultiChoice Africa, aim to stimulate interest in science and technology and to inspire innovative thinking among secondary and high school students across the continent. The awards take the form of a competition open to 14-19 year-old students in 42 countries. Students are invited to write an essay or design a poster depicting how innovative use of satellite technology in the fields of communication, earth observation or navigation can propel Africa into the future.

In the framework of promoting educational content, we have recently launched together with Wikimédia France and Afrique Telecom an initiative to provide free bandwidth to access to French-language Wikipedia in Sub-Saharan Africa via Wi-Fi hotspots.

During the Transform Africa conference in Rwanda, it was noted that a key area for concern is how the continent will meet the growing demand for data. How important is internet connectivity to Africa’s development aspirations? What’s Eutelsat’s role in this drive?

On a continent with more than 600 million inhabitants and a steady GDP growth of 7 % per year, small enterprises and individuals in Africa increasingly need to be connected to the world with real broadband.

Broadband penetration is clearly essential for economic growth. It improves productivity, accelerates innovation and generates increased trade for enterprises of all sizes.

Eutelsat is planning to channel its expertise into getting more people online across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last month, we unveiled a partnership with Facebook to jointly operate the first of two satellites, as part of a far-reaching strategy for developing satellite broadband in Africa. This first satellite will come online in 2016. We are also investing in a second satellite that will cover the entire sub-Saharan Africa, to be launched three years later.

Eutelsat has announced that it will launch an all-electric satellite to launch in 2019 to set new standards for satellite broadband in Africa. What are you doing or needs to be done by various players in the ecosystem as we head towards the 2019 launch date?

We are committed to work with the best partners to deliver an enhanced online experience to Internet users on the African continent. For the 2016 satellite jointly operated with Facebook, we will focus primarily on building a distribution network so it is in place when the service becomes available at the end of next year. We are looking for three types of prospective distributors – telecom operators, pay-TV platforms, as well as data capacity integrators.

For Eutelsat, these distribution agreements will enable us to bring high speed internet access to small and medium companies as well as individual users either directly or via mobile and Wi-Fi distribution. This is the right time to boost Internet connectivity for millions of African users deprived of the economic and social benefits of the Internet.

We are also putting in place the best technologies and solutions to build the gateway and network infrastructure in order to deliver a high-quality and affordable Internet solution across Sub-Saharan Africa.

These first milestones will help us to accelerate our go-to-market in the view of the second satellite to be launched in 2019.

Eutelsat was recently selected by Zimbabwe’s broadcasting industry regulator to accelerate the country’s digital TV transition process. Which other digital TV migration projects are involved in and in which countries?

Africa’s ongoing move to a fully digital broadcasting environment is one of the key technology transformations underway across the continent. Digital switchover is a unique opportunity for Africa and its broadcasting landscape. It opens the door to new channels with improved image quality and more locally produced programmes that better meet viewer expectations.

Satellite technology is a natural ally for DTT roll-out, as the reach we deliver can feed terrestrial networks and satellite homes spread over a huge landmass. With one third of our 38 satellites offering coverage of Sub-Saharan Africa, Eutelsat is fully mobilised to support digital switchover.

Apart from Zimbabwe, we have recently started to collaborate with Canal + on a DTT project as they have selected one of our satellites to broadcast new package of DTT channels for French-speaking Africa. The channels will be transmitted to DTT transmitters in approximately ten French-speaking countries in an area stretching from Guinea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The CANAL+ pay-TV service will comprise a basic package of 25 channels and a selection of national channels per country.

Give brief highlights of your existing projects and partnerships with Africa’s mobile network operators    

During last AfricaCom show held last month in Cape Town, we entered into a partnership agreement Camusat, a market leader in implementing telecom infrastructures to enhance turnkey connectivity solutions for mobile operators in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The agreement will drive growth of mobile communications that have dramatically expanded in sub-Saharan Africa but are still under-developed in remote rural areas. In the vast territories yet to be covered terrestrial infrastructure would require heavy investment over several years to link unconnected communities to mobile networks.

Eutelsat and Camusat are drawing on their respective expertise of connectivity markets in Africa to provide mobile operators with turnkey solutions. Eutelsat can deliver satellite coverage of all African territories while Camusat provides expertise in telecom infrastructure deployment, including building, providing electrical power and maintaining towers for mobile telephony networks via more than 1,000 employees in the African continent.

This partnership marks a new step in our collaboration with Africa’s mobile telephony operators. In addition to regular lease of satellite capacity to support network development, our new partnership with Camusat equips us to offer solutions covering the entire communication chain with maximum flexibility and irrespective of location.

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