(Adds more background including references to Google, Facebook)
* At least four satellites to be launched in 2014
* Terrestrial fibre networks growing slowly
* New services to drive demand
By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
JOHANNESBURG, April 17 Africa's demand for
bandwidth is doubling every year, outpacing the laying of
terrestrial telecom fibre links and encouraging commercial
satellite operators to launch more units into orbit.
The arrival of submarine cables on Africa's eastern shore
just five years ago was largely expected to herald the end of
satellite connections, which had been the region's only link to
the outside world for decades.
But the opposite is happening with Africa's political
geography - notably its many landlocked countries, such as
Zambia, South Sudan and Rwanda - bringing undersea cable plans
back to earth.
"If you are to provide connectivity to the masses, fibre is
not the way to do it. Do you think that it would make economical
sense to take fibre to every village in Kenya?" said Ibrahima
Guimba-Saidou, a senior executive for Africa at Luxembourg-based
satellite operator SES SA .
"Satellite is still around and will continue to be around
because it's the best medium to extend connectivity to the
Hundreds of millions of people on the continent still have
no access to the Internet, he said.
At least four satellites are planned for launch this year as
countries with no access to the coast have yet to benefit from
at least 10 undersea cables now serving the continent.
"There will be times when they compete, but such is the
growth in demand for bandwidth that there is room for plenty of
players," said Mark Newman, chief research officer at industry
research company Informa Telecoms & Media.
"If you are in a landlocked country, it might well be that
even though satellite would seem to be expensive compared to the
cost of fibre capacity that lands on the coast somewhere, by the
time you get that capacity inland, it's no cheaper than
satellite," Newman said.
SES, one of the world's largest commercial satellite
operators, expects to launch its Astra2G satellite in 2014 after
sending three others dedicated to Africa into orbit in the last
year. Nine of its 56 satellites orbiting the earth are allocated
Europe's biggest satellite operator Eutelsat plans
to fire off its tri-band EUTELSAT 3B this month after launching
another to extend sub-Saharan Africa coverage in 2013.
[Graphic: Operational satellites: link.reuters.com/bex58v
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MOBILES DRIVE DEMAND
Competition to provide Internet access in Africa is to
intensify further as the continent's rising wealth makes it a
target of the world's biggest service providers.
Google Inc announced plans last year to
use solar-powered balloons to deliver Internet access to remote
regions of the world. It has just acquired solar-powered drone
maker Titan Aerospace, which is developing "stratospheric
satellites" that can climb to altitude of 65,000 feet and stay
aloft for up to five years.
Facebook Inc, the world's biggest Internet social
network, is also aiming to connect billions of people who do not
currently have Internet access in places such as Africa and Asia
and recently announced plans to build solar-powered drones and
satellites as part of those efforts.
The demand for Internet and data services in Africa has been
driven by affordable mobile broadband connections. Mobile
broadband users could grow by nearly eight times to 806 million
by the end of 2018, according to Informa estimates.
New services such as digital television, onboard Internet
connection for passenger aircraft, and delivering education and
health services electronically will also drive demand.
The private sector has several initiatives to extend the
capacity from submarine cables inland using terrestrial cables.
Liquid Telecom, a subsidiary of Econet Wireless Global, is
building a fibre network across southern Africa covering
Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, South Africa,
Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In addition, the Central African Backbone project, which is
backed by the World Bank, is working to connect countries such
as Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad.
Africa's newest country South Sudan, aims to lay a
fibre-optic network this year to link the capital Juba with
submarine cables in east Africa to cut the high cost of using
It is one of the most expensive countries in Africa for
Internet use, with the average retail price bandwidth via
satellite currently around $4,000 per megabit (MB), according to
a source familiar with the industry. The government has said
that construction of fibe-optic cables could more than halve
prices and double the speed of Internet services.
Until capacity bottlenecks are addressed, satellite
operators are innovating to plug the black hole in parts of
One operator, O3B, or Other 3 Billion, whose investors
include SES, Google and HSBC, has launched four of the
next-generation medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites and plans
two other launches in 2014 to make an orbital constellation of
At a height of 8,000 kms (5,000 miles), the MEO units allow
for faster speeds than traditional stationary satellites at
O3B's tests have delivered capacity five times better than
what traditional satellites can manage, making its technology
suitable for both voice and interactive applications, said Omar
Trujillo, vice president for Africa and Latin America.
O3B already has 20 customers signed up and Trujillo expects
that satellite will be the main connection for most of its
clients, other than a fall-back plan for when fibre fails.
"A lot of applications for mining, oil and gas, will
continue to be done by satellite," he said. "The main market may
not be international links for Nairobi or Johannesburg but will
be communication for some of these remote areas that have had
very low demand before, but now have fast-growing demand."
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and Susan Fenton)