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Are High-Throughput Satellites the Future for Satcom in Africa?

Africa has been long on potential but short on results as a satcom market for decades. The continent’s population, huge distances and limited fixed and mobile terrestrial infrastructures create ideal conditions for satellite to take hold. There is growing demand throughout Africa for applications such as distance learning, Direct to Home (DTH) Internet service, video distribution, enterprise networking, and mobile phone backhaul.

At the same time, economic constraints of conventional satellites have limited deployment of satcom services in many geographies and application areas. The cost-per-bit delivered by conventional satellites is often too high to support affordable data plans in many areas, in particular making it difficult to meet consumer demands for throughputs.

HTS infrastructure globally is rapidly expanding with the launch of geostationary orbit satellites across all continents, and within the next 5 years will include global LEO (low earth orbiting) and MEO (middle earth orbiting) satellites. Availability of high capacity, lower cost bandwidth will fundamentally change the cost paradigm and will undoubtedly help turn Africa’s enormous untapped potential into reality. HTS’lower cost of delivering Mbps is the key to substantially increasing the range and quality of services available to African consumers and businesses currently on the far side of the digital divide.

Africas HTS growth

The number of providers investing in African HTS capacity is the best testimony to its potential. The continent already has significant HTS capacity, and can expect a steady increase over the next several years with the launch of new GEO satellites and global MEO and LEO projects such as O3b and OneWeb.

Yahsat and Avanti are the major HTS service providers in Africa today. Both are planning to add HTS bandwidth in 2017. Yahsat’s Al Yah 3 satellite is expected to be operational in early 2017, extending more HTS capacity to countries throughout Africa. Avanti’s HYLAS 4 is on track to be launched Q1 2017, further extending Avanti’s coverage of Africa.

Other providers are moving aggressively into the African HTS market. Arabsat launched its BADR 7 HTS in Nov. 2015. Spacecom is scheduled to bring on additional capacity in 2016 with the launch of AMOS 6. Facebook and Eutelsat, partners in the Internet.org venture, have purchased the entire HTS capacity of AMOS 6 to provide Internet access to various regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Eutelsat has also ordered another HTS to service Africa, to be launched in 2019. Intelsat’s EPIC IS33e satellite is coming online in 2016; Gilat Satcom is already offering HTS-priced Mbps plans on conventional satellites to spur demand for HTS service on EPIC IS 33e. While much of the planned HTS capacity for the Africa region is in Ka-band, the Intelsat EPIC IS33e capacity is implemented on Ku-band, which enables current users of Ku-band capacity to easily migrate onto more cost effective HTS capacity.

HTS Advantages

HTS are designed and optimized for data communications. They achieve very high capacities by utilizing small spot beams and extensive frequency reuse. Conventional satellites employ wide-area beams – as much as several hundred kilometers across. Conventional satellites were really designed and optimized for video broadcast which is why, when used for data communications, conventional satellites typically yield capacity of only several Gbps. A large HTS dedicated to data can deliver hundreds of Gbps over a wide area at a lower cost per bit than a conventional satellite.

As satellite operators replace their fleet, a common practice is to add an HTS payload onto a replacement satellite. The capacity of these payloads typically range in the 10’s of Gbps and enable the satellite operator to incrementally introduce HTS capacity into their service region. This also enables the satellite operator to effectively serve the data market segment with the HTS capacity and the more conventional video and enterprise markets with the conventional capacity.

HTS has several technical advantages over conventional satellites. The cost per delivered bit is lower as the satellite itself will deliver much more capacity while roughly having the same price as a conventional satellite. In addition, its powerful spot beams enable smaller antennas and radios, which lowers the capex cost per VSAT. HST’s higher capacity enables service providers to offer service plans with throughputs of multiple MBpsand multiple GBytes of monthly capacity.

Some of those capabilities come at a price, however. HTS smaller spot beams are less effective for multicasting than conventional satellites’ broad beams. Similarly, large distributed enterprises that could be served with a single conventional satellite beam might require several HTS beams to link all of their facilities.

HTS network architectures can also pose regulatory issues for applications such as satellite backhaul. HTS gateway stations are often not located in the countries where cellular traffic originates. Regulations in many countries required that all cellular traffic be routed within the country. Similar issues can arise bringing enterprise traffic back to headquarters.

The HTS outlook

HTS is clearly on the near horizon to expand Africa’s addressable satellite market. It is the crucial missing piece in the elusive goal of connecting the entire continent, providing the price/performance ratio satcoms need to offer viable services to business and consumers.

HTS’ potential impact on Africa’s satellite markets rides largely on the target application or vertical industry. Those with the greatest potential for the region include:

  • Internet access, including digital divide projects as well as WIFI hotspots
  • Cellular backhaul
  • Government health, education and economic development projects for health as well as classic enterprise including banks and
  • Mobility, aero as well as land based Internet access

Undoubtedly, wherever HTS capacity is available, it will be the most cost-effective alternative for satellite Internet access. The choice of HTS service for cellular backhaul, as well as enterprise traffic, will depend on whether the available capacity can land the traffic within the original country of each service provider. If not, then conventional capacity will be used for cellular backhaul because of its ability to always land the traffic within the country of origin, versus routing through a gateway located in another country. Mobility services—aero, maritime and land—will likely require a hybrid combination of satellite and terrestrial wireless capacity, with economics of HTS capacity favoring it over conventional, though the latter will fill gaps in HTS coverage.

With HTS capacity growing year over year, high-speed satellite Internet service will soon help close the digital divide across most of Africa and change lives for the better.