60cm Ka-band dish on a roof top capable of delivering up to 15Mbps

With the landing of several undersea cables in Africa in the last three years, many a pundit have hailed it as a new dawn of telecommunications in the continent. The cables brought with them massive bandwidth capacities to the continent that enabled faster and cheaper communications. Before the arrival of these undersea cables, Satellite was used to connect Africa to the rest of the world. These satellites had the following characteristics:

  1. Expensive due to the fact that satellite transponder leasing was expensive due to the extremely high demand for the capacity. This demand reached peak circa 2005 when operators were even buying capacity from satellites that were still on paper, not yet built and launched.
  2. Due to the cost and scarcity of capacity, many back-haul pipes were congested making satellite communications slow and irritating to use.

The arrival of cheap and abundant terrestrial capacity led many to declare that satellite was destined to history books and that there will be no market for satellite broadband in the years to come.

Three years down the line, reality has hit home as the following facts downed:

  1. The issue of back-haul was resolved by the undersea cables, these cables did not however address the last mile access problem. There is a lot of capacity at the landing stations that cannot be distributed to end users as there is no good last mile infrastructure in place. Spectrum scarcity has also made things worse.
  2. Even on the existing last mile networks and those being put up to meet this demand, reliability has been a key issue due to poorly designed networks and fiber cuts. Industry leaders now seem to agree to this fact as seen here
  3. No regulatory framework was set-up to harness the advantages brought by the availability of bandwidth. Regulators failed to come up with new policies and laws such as infrastructure sharing, spectrum farming and sharing

The result is that the consumer has not benefited much as ISP’s and NSP’s continue to offer mediocre services. There are reports of some ISP customers getting as low as 92% availability which translates to about 29 days of outage in a year.

Will Satellite make a come back?

Before we answer this question, we need to be aware of the key advantages that satellites provide. These are:

  1. Very high availability. No technology beats satellite when it comes to availability. Downtime is rare and far in between making majority of well designed satellite systems achieve the proverbial 99.999% availability (52 minutes of outage in a year).
  2. Satellites offer instant availability of service over a large area without the need to lay additional infrastructure.

With the advent of Ka-band satellites, the landscape is about to change as these will bring with them large amounts of bandwidth and make them available instantly to large geographical regions. The key advantage of Ka-band satellites over the more traditional Ku-band and C-band satellites are:

  1. In terms of capacity, one Ka-band satellite is equal to about 100 Ku-band satellite yet they cost the same to manufacture and put into orbit. This means that capacity on Ka-band will be much cheaper to the point of giving fiber capacity competition.
  2. Ka-band utilizes spot beam technology that enables the use of smaller antenna (as small as 60cm) and cheaper modems. At the moment, a full Ka-band kit is competitive on price to terrestrial technology equipment. Intelsat is developing a spot beam architecture utilizing all bands that will allow 2 satellites to cover all populated continents of the world. Read more on the Intelsat Epic™ project here

With more capacity available to offer higher speeds at much lower costs, with equipment being cheaper and more competitive to terrestrial offerings and giving much higher reliability that terrestrial services can only dream of. What will prevent Satellite broadband from making a come back?

If recent events are anything to go by, Satellite broadband is already making a come back to Africa. The recent launch and uptake of capacity on Yahsat 1B and Hylas-2 satellites over Africa will  avail high-speed capacity whose quality rivals that of majority of the terrestrial services latency not withstanding. The main reason why i think Ka-band will be a game changer in the African broadband market is that operators have realized that it is one thing to roll out a terrestrial infrastructure and another to operate and maintain it. Operational costs of the newly laid terrestrial wired and wireless networks are becoming prohibitively high due to vandalism and sabotage. The terrestrial networks offer very many points of failure to offer any reliable service. Ka-band satellite will offer cheaper bandwidth that is more reliable and easy to access and install on any place in the continent. It takes an average of 3 weeks to survey and install a fiber cable in a city like Nairobi, it takes about 2 hours to fully set-up a Ka-band dish and connect to the Internet….. Once the fiber hype dies, Ka-band broadband via satellite will be a hit in Africa.

Anyone dismissing my argument should look at the following links that talk of roll-out and expansion of Ka-band satellite in Europe, Middle east and USA which we consider to be pretty “wire up” than Africa.

  1. Hughes announcement of the launch of Echostar 17 to offer 100Gbps broadband services in North America: http://bit.ly/ShARi6 after the successful launch and sale of capacity on Spaceway satellites
  2. Viasat Ka-band 100Gbps broadband service offering in North America: http://bit.ly/ShBAjj
  3. Avanti communications announcement of the launch of Hylas-2 to offer services in Mideast, Africa, Europe and the Caucus: http://bit.ly/ShBYhL
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