The internet has become an indispensable catalyst for societal development in world economies. With massive internet adoption, countries have shifted towards a new economy where innovation underpins the growth of technology-based companies. However, as of early 2021, 46.7 percent of the world population was still offline. Surprisingly, only 11 percent of the total offline population live in areas with no 3G/4G connectivity at all. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes to the highest rate of unconnected people at 28 percent — only 22 percent of its population can access the internet. However, Africa has the highest internet growth rate since 2000 in comparison to all the other world regions.
Researchers and business analysts have attributed Africa’s poor connectivity to: poor infrastructure; affordability; and a perceived irrelevance and lack readiness. However, the continent has undergone massive transformation through regional and global cooperation to improve Africa’s internet connectivity landscape. This article uses supporting data to analyze the current state of internet connectivity and satellite broadband market in Africa and the future of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) communication satellites for the continent.
Since the dawn of the global internet age, Africa has been on the upward trend in adopting the internet. As of 2020, 11.5 percent of the global internet users were from Africa. In addition, the rate of cell phone penetration and new social media users is a vital indicator of Africa’s expanding internet eco-system.
Predominantly, mobile network operators (MNOs) are the major providers of internet services in Africa. However, apart from the MNOs, African governments have rolled out massive broadband fiber as a last-mile solution to selected administrative centers. Therefore, terrestrial fiber and wireless have been the dominant modes of broadband delivery across Africa.
Equally, cell phone penetration has increased steadily in the regions. As a result, the GSM Association (GSMA) projects that the number of new internet users in sub-Saharan Africa will increase from 303 million to 474 million between 2020 and 2025. The change will raise the mobile contribution from $132 billion to $155 billion.
The new social media users are a useful indicator for accessing the number of people connected to the internet. Since 2016, the number of social media users in different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others, has increased in Africa. As a result, the increasing cell phone penetration coupled with more social media users justifies the high internet growth in the continent.
In the last decade, Africa has experienced a massive transformation of its infrastructure. This is particularly evident in developing internet supporting infrastructures such as roads and electricity. For instance, World Bank data shows an increase in electricity connections since 2004. As of 2018, 46 percent of the continent was connected to electricity compared to 34 percent in 2012. These supporting infrastructure drives down the cost of deploying internet infrastructures such as fiber and cell phone base stations. The effect cascades to the general increase in internet connectivity.
The increase in cell phone penetration and new social media users disqualifies “perceived relevance and readiness” as a reason for Africa’s poor connectivity. An increasing annual percentage of Africans can afford internet-enabled smartphones, as projected by GSMA. Furthermore, the rising number of social media users shows that a significant population can use digital systems and perceive their importance. For instance, local content is now available on mobile phones.
Lastly, the transformation in supporting infrastructures such as electricity and road networks lowers the cost of deploying the internet. This opens a new discussion on whether the conventional fixed and cellular technology will fully connect the vast remote and underserved African population vis-a-vis the cost.
Consequently, countries and companies have begun testing and rolling out new internet connectivity methods across Africa. Satellite broadband is a typical approach that is gaining popularity in the region. As a result, GEO satellite operators have slowly penetrated the African market.
The major Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Africa are national governments and foreign companies. Some national governments have launched operational GEO satellites to provide internet services to underserved and remote locations and government installations and for military purposes. Such countries include Algeria, Egypt, Angola, and Nigeria.
Apart from the national government, multinational companies have expanded to Africa to provide broadband internet. Some examples include Eutelsat, SES, Inmarsat, Avanti Communications, Yahsat, and Intelsat.
The GEO satellite service providers mainly offer Direct-to-Home (DTH) television, telephony and broadband internet services for governments, banks, telecommunication companies, and other businesses. Their approach is primarily business to business. Furthermore, the major segment of GEO B2B clients are ISPs that resell the capacity to small businesses and households. GEOs also target financial institutions such as banks to provide Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite service for ATM operation. Other than banks and ISPs, GEO satellite operaors sell a significant portion of their capacity to MNOs.
However, GEO operators are not only adopting the B2B approach exclusively but also business to consumer (B2C). Their major customers in this approach are governments, maritime, aviation, and some NGOs. For instance, Avanti Communications partners with UNHCR to provide internet connectivity to refugee settlements in Western Congo and support rural maternity clinics. In Kenya, the company has partnered with Global Partnership for Education on the Girls’ Education Awareness Programme to encourage girls’ education in the country. In addition, SES, Inmarsat, Intelsat, and Yahsat also sell broadband internet to various government sectors, especially the military, maritime, and aviation agencies. Although Yahsat is yet to sell its products to any African government, it is already offering solutions to military troops and border patrol officers in the UAE, greater Middle East region and parts of the Horn of Africa.
Also, GEO operators not only sell the services to the governments but also enter into MoUs with some African governments. Such is the case with the collaboration between Intelsat and South African National Space Agency (SANSA). The two are planning to build a ground station in Hartebeesthoek in South Africa.
However, LEO satellite operators have also started penetrating the African market. For instance, Globalstar has obtained spectrum rights and is eligible to operate in Kenya, Gabon, South Africa, Mozambique and Rwanda. Also, SES is providing similar services in some African countries such as DRC through its Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) O3b system. These efforts demonstrate the growing interest of LEO companies in Africa’s emerging market.
Poor infrastructure, perceived irrelevance, affordability and readiness have been the major contributing factors to the slow internet penetration in Africa. However, the ongoing transformation supported by the existing data indicates that some of the factors may no longer be the reason for the state of internet connectivity. African countries are realizing the importance of internet connectivity in improving the socio-economic lives of its citizens. In addition, internet usage is now gaining traction in thematic areas such as education, healthcare, and government services.
African governments are now integrating Information and Communications Technology (ICT) solutions to improve the quality of education and general student experience in the classroom. Consequently, countries have rolled out projects focusing on equipping schools with fully-operational computer laboratories as well as connection to the internet.
In Kenya, the ICT ministry in partnership with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has set aside $140 million to connect 1,000 primary schools to the internet. Neighboring Tanzania has set out a project to connect primary schools to the internet in a bid to improve teachers’ and children’s access to educational content. In Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Liberia, Cameroon, Botswana, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, the MNO Orange and its subsidiaries are rolling out similar efforts to connect schools to the internet. Similar efforts are ongoing in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. All these efforts occur on the backdrop of the United Nations’ and International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) $5 billion project to connect all schools across the globe.
The low doctor-to-patient ratio coupled by limited hospitals has opened a new solution to Africa’s healthcare. Countries are now integrating technology in their healthcare systems to provide life-changing solutions to patients across Africa. Rwanda became the first country in 2016 to transport blood and other medical supplies using drones provided by American company, Zipline Inc. Furthermore, in Tanzania, the telecoms company, Airtel provides free messaging services about infant care to pregnant women and new mothers. Similar efforts have been achieved in South Africa through a messaging application, MomConnect, a mobile messaging platform integrated with a national pregnancy registry and a help desk for questions and feedback.
These are just a few examples in Africa where governments are appreciating and integrating ICT in improving the quality of healthcare. Communication, specifically internet connectivity underpins each of those innovative solutions in healthcare. As is the case currently, the major providers of the internet in aiding these applications are MNOs. Due to limitations of cellular technology especially in rural areas where the costs of expanding is prohibitive, unconventional methods such as satellites can be useful in value addition.
Until the early 2000s, African countries had centralized government structures. The majority of the functions were carried out in major cities and towns. However, that is no longer the case as governments try to devolve their functions to local authorities such as states, districts, counties and provinces. Consequently, there has been a need to connect government facilities with the internet. This is evident with all African land-locked countries extending fiber optic cables from their coastal-bordering neighbors.
In addition to the government to civilian services, internet connectivity is increasingly becoming useful among military and border control personnel. This is the case for regions of active military operations such as Northern Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Sahel, and Somalia.
As the African internet market grows, new satellite broadband service providers have started making initial steps towards entering the market. Although the market has been predominantly served by MNOs, global figures have suggested that they are experiencing challenging business times due to declining average revenue per user. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is prohibitively expensive to roll out new base stations in rural and underserved areas where the expected return from customer subscription is lower than initial capital expenditure and operating expenditure costs.
Due to the challenges of terrestrial-based systems, satellites are likely to bring more people online in Africa in the next five years according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research.
The paradigm shift in internet service delivery has seen LEO operators beginning to target African markets. In 2019, the Rwandan government together with Qualcomm Technologies and Softbank Group Corp raised a total of $3.4 billion to finance OneWeb’s LEO constellation. The government planned to use the satellites to provide internet to rural schools and villages. OneWeb, however, went bankrupt in 2020 and it is unclear if the new iteration of the company will renew the previous agreement with Rwanda.
Canadian satellite operator Telesat also has an existing partnership with the United Kingdom’s Sat Space Africa to provide broadband connection in southern African countries of Namibia, Angola, and South Africa. Liquid Telecom has similar arrangements with Telesat to improve the quality of service in broadband delivery to 10 African countries.
The LEO companies have bolstered their efforts in penetrating the African market in the current decade. America’s Globalstar has already acquired spectrum rights in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Gabon, Rwanda, and Botswana. The spectrum rights not only allow Globalstar to provide internet services to the customers but also establish gateway stations as is the case in Botswana.
SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is making an early application to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for a spectrum license to capture the market. The company has had similar talks with South Africa’s Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to obtain a license of operation in the country. The multiple efforts from the LEO companies demonstrates Africa’s market potential.
Connecting the unconnected by 2030 remains the objective of countries, regional, and international organizations, but how to do that still remains the greatest challenge. The complexities of connecting new users, especially those located in remote locations is expensive. As a result, stakeholders have to juggle between the technology, costs and sustainability of the approach. Traditionally, MNOs have been crucial in providing broadband in rural Africa, but the static revenues are steadily limiting their capability. Furthermore, GEO operators have stepped in to augment the efforts of the MNOs.
However, the entrance of low cost satellites and dense networks such as Telesat, OneWeb, and Starlink among other companies opens a new opportunity for the continents. Whether the systems will provide internet at an affordable cost is a game of wait and see. VS
Space in Africa is the leading media, analytics and consulting company focusing on the African space and satellite industry. Space in Africa has been the primary source of space-related data and information on the African space and satellite industry since 2018 and recently completed the African Union Commission baseline studies on the four-space segments and the socio-economic benefits for the establishment and operationalization of the African Space Agency. Space in Africa has offices in Lagos (Nigeria) and Sakala (Estonia) and staff in several African countries.
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