With the recent and impending arrival on the continent of undersea broadband cables equivalent to many terabytes of bandwidth, the question turns to the relevance and demand for satellite communications. In an exclusive interview with Africa Telecoms, Flavien Bachabi, Intelsat's Regional Vice President for Africa, shares some of the company's insights into this market.
Intelsat is recognised a leader in the field of satellite communications and has been providing satellite-enabled services to Africa since 1965, with its focus still firmly fixed on the continent. This is evident in the fact that 24 of it's fleet of 55 communications satellites service more than 200 customers in the region. The relevance of this carrier technology is underpinned by the more than 40 mobile operators that rely on Intelsat to provide backhaul services to outlying areas. “Africa has been one of the fastest growing regions for fixed satellite services in recent years, fueled by demand for critical infrastructure from communications providers and television programmers,” says Bachabi. He adds that the significant demand for Internet access over the past five years has reshaped the communications landscape, particularly in Africa where years of neglect have resulted in pent-up demand finally being alleviated by the arrival of the myriad submarine data cables. “Until recently, only a handful of the 53 African countries were connected to fibre,” he states.
Despite these fibre connections, however, Intelsat still has a pivotal role to play in this arena. “Even after the arrival of the new undersea fibre systems, only about 15 countries will be connected in some way or another to coastal landing points via fibre. This alone demonstrates the necessity to have a blend of satellite, fibre and wireless to adequately address Africa’s specific challenges and requirements. “Intelsat has been at the forefront of providing solutions to make Internet and broadband more accessible across the continent, the benefits of which are already noticeable, in that the development of the telecoms sector has already created new business opportunities and jobs,” he says. There has naturally been a knock-on effect in improved service delivery in the provision of social, educational and medical services, with Intelsat playing a role in developing international satellite-based telemedicine networks, for example. The unique African environment characterised by dislocated communities with little or no modern infrastructure has actually played to Intelsat's advantage as it and its customers are able to deliver world-class solutions that other technologies cannot replicate as effectively or efficiently. “Intelsat’s long-standing leadership has provided a communications infrastructure that has extended voice, data and media services to the most remote regions of the continent,” explains Bachabi. “Satellite networks are extremely predictable, allowing constant and uniform quality of service to thousands of locations, regardless of geography. Unlike most terrestrial alternatives, satellite networks can be rolled out quickly to multiple locations, connecting cities with remote villages across a large landmass, where terrestrial fibre is insufficient or non-existent. Since satellite-enabled communication networks can be quickly deployed, customers can establish and deliver new services faster. “Satellite can reach everywhere, linking the remotest parts of the inner continent’s countries to major coastal urban centers where fibre is available, offering an ideal and necessary redundancy solution to fibre.” It is on the back of these needs that the company has been growing its satellite-based services for the past 45 years to the point today that it not only provides backhaul services to a growing number of mobile operators, but has also invested in its own terrestrial network that spans 20,000 km. Bachabi says that eight out of the top 10 mobile operators in Africa, representing 64% of the region's subscribers, currently make use of Intelsat's communications satellite system. “From a financial perspective, 17% of total company revenue in 2009 was generated from Africa and the Middle East. We are committed to the continent and will continue to provide new service offers to meet customer demand as demonstrated through our investments in IS-25 and Intelsat New Dawn.” The company's own terrestrial network, branded IntelsatON E, is powered by Cisco and consists of a global, terrestrial architecture, based on an IP /MPL S network, teleports and points of presence. It is fully integrated with its satellite fleet, providing a single source for converged voice, video and data solutions. This does not mean the company is taking its eye off the satellite ball, with it rolling out additional infrastructure to service the continent. “We are currently in the midst of our company’s largest fleet investment programme and have eight satellites in various stages of construction. We launched Intelsat 16 in February and are on track to launch Intelsat New Dawn, which will serve Africa, later this year,” explains Bachabi.
The power and convenience of communications satellites was demonstrated most notably earlier this year in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Intelsat was able to dedicate two communications networks to provide critical communication links. “The two networks, established via Intelsat’s satellite and terrestrial network infrastructure, supported governments, Africa to a global audience,” says Bachabi. “In addition, Intelsat will combine this space segment with its global infrastructure of teleports and fibre, and points of presence, offering end-to-end managed solutions.” Services will include tape play-out, live shot and transmission services from event locations in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban; live shot locations for non-rights holders at Ellis Park and Soccer City; incountry satellite newsgathering services; and managed platforms for encoding, multiplexing and compression equipment in high and standard definition.
Sidebar 1: What are the different kinds of satellite orbits?
An orbit is the path that a satellite follows as it revolves around Earth. In terms of commercial satellites, there are three main categories of orbits: Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO): 35,786 km above the earth Orbiting at the height of 22,282 miles above the equator (35,786 km), the satellite travels in the same direction and at the same speed as the Earth's rotation on its axis, taking 24 hours to complete a full trip around the globe. Thus, as long as a satellite is positioned over the equator in an assigned orbital location, it will appear to be "stationary" with respect to a specific location on the Earth. A single geostationary satellite can view approximately one third of the Earth's surface. If three satellites are placed at the proper longitude, the height of this orbit allows almost all of the Earth's surface to be covered by the satellites.
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO): 8,000- 20,000 km above the earth These orbits are primarily reserved for communications satellites that cover the North and South Pole. Unlike the circular orbit of the geostationary satellites, MEO's are placed in an elliptical (oval-shaped) orbit
Low Earth Orbit (LEO): 500-2,000 km above the earth These orbits are much closer to the Earth, requiring satellites to travel at a very high speed in order to avoid being pulled out of orbit by Earth's gravity. At LEO, a satellite can circle the Earth in approximately one and a half hours.
Sidebar 2: Intelsat New Dawn
This ground-braking initiative, announced at the end of 2008, is a joint-venture that will result in the launch of a new satellite into the 33º East orbital location, which is ideally positioned to serve Africa. The satellite will feature a payload optimised for wireless backhaul, broadband and television programming and is expected to be operational next year. “Nearly 75% of the satellite’s C- and Ku-band transponder units are under contract, with pre-launch commitments received from leading wireless, network and video service providers,” says Bachabi. “Gateway Communications, Vodacom International, Zain Nigeria and Gilat Satcom have all purchased capacity, which clearly shows the underlying demand for additional capacity in Africa.” “The New Dawn joint venture, with its optimised satellite and African-led financing, represents a solution for Africa by Africa,” noted Andile Ngcaba, chairman of Convergence Partners, one of the South African-based JV partners, at the announcement. “Over the course of this satellite’s life, it will provide world-class connectivity, allowing businesses to grow and rural communities to connect. Convergence Partners believes that investments in African projects of this nature can offer superior returns while also accelerating the socio-economic development of the continent.” “Intelsat has provided satellite communications to Africa for more than 40 years. We have witnessed the economic growth realized by our customers when they have access to reliable communications,” said David McGlade, CEO of Intelsat. “The New Dawn joint venture is a great example of the type of creative investments Intelsat will use to further develop our fleet in regions where we believe there is unmet demand. Once in service, Intelsat New Dawn will be an integral part of our global, resilient satellite network, providing growth capacity and allowing us to further expand our services to our long-time customers in Africa.”