Cosmic communications: African telcos turn to satellites to bridge the connectivity gap

Across Africa, telcos and governments are putting fresh emphasis on stepping up the continent's participation in the space race.

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Satellites, like NASA's multi-national Aqua (pictured above), can boost a country's economic development and help with everything from navigation to emergency response. Image: Elena Duvernay
When Chis Nsamba's neighbours found him hammering away at a small metal ball he called a "space observer" in his mother's backyard in Kampala, Uganda, most of them thought he was crazy. But they couldn't be more wrong.

Nsamba is the man behind the African Space Research Program, Uganda's nascent attempt to join the space race, and over the past few years he has faced down more than his fair share of sceptics.

He isn't the first African with seemingly eccentric dreams of the cosmos; as early as the 1960s a Zambian science teacher dreamed of putting a Zambian on the moon, simulating zero gravity by sticking people in a barrel and rolling them down a hill. But since then African space programs have grown considerably, both in number and legitimacy.

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Today at least six African countries - Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tunisia - can boast national space agencies of their own, ranging from Tunisia's 'remote sensing centre' to the South African National Space Agency, which receives nearly $10m of public funding per year. Kenya is in the process of establishing a national space agency as well. Several pan-African plans have been floated, including an agency called AfriSpace proposed in 2012 by Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir, and an African Space Policy and Space Strategy drafted recently by the African Union Working Group on Space.

"Developing space capabilities remains an attractive strategic goal for any nation," says the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the international agency tasked with promoting peaceful uses of outer space. But most of these programs aren't aiming to put an African on the moon or sending a mission to Mars, at least not anytime soon. The space technology of interest to most African governments is that which has the most potential to boost the economic development of a country: namely, satellites.

Nigeria's National Space Research and Development Agency launched its first satellite in 2003. More recent launches include Egypt's remote-sensing satellite, EgyptSat-2, and South Africa's Kondor-E radar satellite. The Democratic Republic of Congo plans to send off its first satellite, CongoSat1, later this year.

According to UNOOSA, there are a number of reasons a country would want its own space program. Satellites are used for navigation, monitoring climate change, natural resources management, search and rescue, environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, and telecommunications. They can be useful tools in emergency response as well; satellites were used to combat the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when their images helped health workers create maps. Plus, the UN points out, space programs employ a considerable number of people and put the best minds from local universities to work.

But one of the most pressing economic drivers of satellite technology is its potential to boost telecommunications. Even countries like Zimbabwe, which don't have national space programs of their own, are keen to take advantage of satellite capabilities; in April the national telco, TelOne, announced that it would be using up-weighted capacity from a satellite run by Avanti Communications, a British satellite operator.

"Our contract has enabled us to address Zimbabwe's gaping digital divide at pace," TelOne's managing director, Chipo Mtasa, said. "Satellite continues to play a huge role in bringing communities, businesses, and public sector organisations online."

Avanti has been heavily involved in Africa's foray into satellite technology. According to the company's chief operating officer Matthew O'Connor, the continent now accounts for over 80 percent of Avanti's capacity.

"Most satellites are built and launched by the major European and US aerospace companies," he says. "The huge cost of building and launching satellites, together with the expertise needed to operate them and the long lead times to get a project underway, mean that most governments find that it is cheaper, quicker, and better in terms of service delivery to choose a commercial provider such as Avanti."

Along with TelOne, Avanti is working with a number of other Africa telcos, including Orange Kenya and Tanzania Telecom, as well as internet service providers like Wanachi and Internet Solutions, the largest pan-African ISP. "Our proprietary software enables a service provider to set up and manage an international network with no capex and very little training," says O'Connor.

But Avanti isn't the only foreign satellite operator eyeing the African market. Last year Airtel Africa announced that it was partnering with the Dubai-based Thuraya Telecommunications Company, a satellite service operator, to provide mobile satellite services across 12 African countries. Airtel said this would give more remote customers a level of mobile service that was previously reserved for city dwellers.

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China is also stepping in. Congo's satellite, CongoSat1, is being developed and manufactured in China and launched by a Chinese company, China Great Wall Industry Corp. The same company launched a similar satellite for Nigeria in 2007.

But such projects don't necessarily speak to Africa's capacity to develop, launch, or operate its own satellites. South Africa has the capacity to build its own satellites, but no African state has yet proven itself capable of an independent launch. "Often states contract with other states to manufacture and launch satellites. The state which purchases the satellite and its launch is often considered to be the launching state," says UNOOSA. "For instance, Nigeria's first satellite, Nigeria Sat-1, was built in the UK and launched from Russia."

The involvement of foreign companies or governments does not mean that African countries are any less able to benefit from their satellites' capabilities, UNOOSA points out.

But in a 2008 essay in the journal Nature, Nigeria's former minister of science and technology Turner Isoun wrote that his country had plans to put a Nigerian in space by 2015 and would be able to launch a Nigerian-made satellite by 2018. For many Africans, the desire to venture into the cosmos on their own is real.

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