Features

The Race ToConnect Africa Through Satellite Technology

Countries are now realizing the strategic and economic value of space. About fifty eight years ago, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy presented the USA with a historic challenge-to put a man on the moon and return him safely. His dramatic 1961 speech jump-started NASA’s Apollo program which was able to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on a world beyond earth on July 20, 1969. Later Apollo missions eventually landed astronauts on the moon. This was a giant leap into space technology and a huge boost to American technological pride.

Even though Apollo came to an end in 1972, the impact of Kennedy’s historic speech lingers on today. Space exploration was able to put Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in space and made it possible for the Soviets to launch the Sputnik 1. Subsequent developments made it possible for the launching of the space station and for the US to undertake several missions into space.

The global space economy will continue to grow, according to a recent report issued by the Space Foundation. And satellites form an essential part of today’s space technology.  First satellite, the Sputnik was launched into space in 1957. Today, there are over 1000 active satellites orbiting the earth.

The advent of satellite technology has generated renewed interest in space science. We now have several satellites circling the earth. And, over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a transition from mini-satellites, to micro-satellites, to nano-satellites, to pico- satellites, and others.

The three largest companies in the fixed satellite business—Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat—have expanded their satellite capacity across the world by launching several new satellites.

While these Western operators continue to dominate the satellite market, the story in Africa is different. Africa is woefully underserved when it comes to communications technology, a key requirement for economic growth in the 21st century. Experts argue that Africa still lags in reliable Internet access, radio service, and global positioning system use.  Also, Africa presents a unique geographical challenge that has so far limited the reach of telecoms services in rural locations and sections of the major cities.

However, over the past decade, there have been significant developments in the satellite market on the continent.  Satellite and undersea fibre optic cable operators have scrambled to link the African continent to the internet backbone and broadband networks during the past decade.

Today, more than fifteen established satellite operators now serve the African continent.  Patton notes that a growing number of mobile telephone operators are relying on satellite backhaul to deliver cellular services to rural areas.

New African operators such as RascomStar QAF and NigComSat have entered the scene and launched the first sub-Saharan African satellites in history. RascomStar-QAF1R has a continental footprint over Africa with 12 Ku-band and 8 C-band transponders and are providing telecommunication services, direct TV broadcast services and Internet access in some rural areas of the continent. Other satellite operators such as Avanti and O3b have entered the African market, introducing innovative projects that have intensified competition and paved a path for future sector growth.

Quika, a new satellite Internet connectivity service provider, plans to offer a free Internet access service to millions of users in multiple African countries and, in doing so, help bridge the digital divide.

Outernet is another satellite company hoping to provide free access to information in regions which do not have internet access. One of their goals is to distribute gadgets (e.g., smartphones, tablets, computers) that do not require connectivity. Specialized receivers on the ground will receive information beamed from satellites in space to store video, audio, web pages, eBooks and images.

Also, satellite solution company Yazmi announced the launch of its satellite powered tablet, Odyssey, which enables learners to access information broadcasted from satellite to their devices, without the need of internet.

South Africa has launched a miniaturized satellite called SUNSAT, which was designed and manufactured in the country, in a NASA-sponsored launch in 1999.

Rwanda launched alow altitude satellite named Icyerekezo, to beam a fast and reliable broadband signal for Internet connectivity in some high schools. Icyerekezo, which loosely means ‘Vision’, was launched by the UK company OneWeb in partnership with the Rwandan government.

Since then, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya have joined the African satellite owners’ club, along with Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. In addition, a proposal has been made to establish an agency called AfriSpace to coordinate initiatives in this area. Furthermore, the African Union Working Group on Space is in the process of drafting an African Space Policy and Space Strategy to help move the continent in this direction. The Union recently approved Egypt as the new headquarters of an African Space Agency, after adopting a space strategy in 2017.

One of the most pressing economic drivers of satellite technology is its potential to boost telecommunications.  As Martin Collins, curator of satellites at the National Air and space Museum stated, satellites offer a shortcut for countries that lack infrastructure such as fiber optic lines.

Today, transit satellites help stir ships at sea to safer course while others warn us about natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, volcanoes, and storms. . Satellites are used for navigation, monitoring climate change, natural resources management, search and rescue, environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, and telecommunications. And satellite technology is being used by the media industries to deliver high-definition TV to households, provide Internet access in remote areas and give people access to location-based applications on mobile phones. GPS navigation systems and geo-location applications are now found in cars, phones, homes and businesses. This has provided endless possibilities for social networking and information-sharing. 

It has been said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties. We need to begin from somewhere. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “we need to set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people”.

The expectation is that satellite technology will help bridge the digital divide in Africa.

Nana Prof. Osei Darkwa, President

African Virtual Campus

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