Africa joins global space race to boost connectivity and security

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Governments are leading the way in the race to space as the leading look to bridge the connectivity equality gap on the back of rising demand for cheaper, high-speed internet.

African countries are looking to space to meet the rising demand for connectivity fueled by fast-changing data consumption patterns and the growing need to bridge the digital divide in land-locked countries.

Demand for internet connectivity has skyrocketed across the continent in the last two years, driven largely by COVID-19 disruptions that have significantly altered the way Africans consume data.

More than ever before, people are now working from home with a significant percentage of the population taking online classes, as a wave of innovation in the technology space runs across the continent to push up demand for internet connectivity. Yet Africa’s Internet penetration rate currently stands at just 39%, leaving over 60% of the population without access, according to SES Networks Africa vice president, Caroline Kamaitha, who says that governments are now leading the way to make sure their citizen get the access they need.

“Governments are taking a really huge step to ensure that their people in those different countries are able to get connectivity,” Kamaitha said.

21 African countries have a space program or are in the process of setting one up

Smart Africa Secretariat, a pan-African alliance of 32 African countries, has set a target of doubling broadband penetration, with a commitment to halving the cost of internet use by 2025 levering on non-terrestrial network (NTN) solutions.

Over the last decade there have been increased activity in the continent’s space market with both governments, private sector players, and foreign investors ramping up efforts towards increasing satellite-based Internet connectivity.

“Each country has some sort of space program…we have as well countries across Africa that have gone and built their own satellites for their sovereign and commercial use,” says Kamaitha.

By April 2019, eight African countries including Kenya ,Ghana, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, and Angola had launched 32 national satellites into orbit, according to the annual African Space Industry report 2020.

Space in Africa, a media, analytics, and consulting firm, shows African countries have so far spent over $4.5 billion on satellite projects with at least 21 out of 54 African nations having a space program or in the process of creating one.

The need for faster, cheaper more reliable internet is driving Africa’s space race

In July, Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) floated a request for proposal, with a public-private partnership arrangement in mind, to provide up to 90% of its citizens with faster, cheaper, and reliable internet by 2025.

South Africa’s first private prospective satellite operator MzansiSat has announced plan to offer internet connectivity to all SADC region countries, while other local commercials satellite firms in the continent include Nigeria Communication Satellite and publicly traded Egyptian Satellite Co (Nilesat.)

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has developed a satellite internet constellation dubbed Starlink, which will target the African market with launches scheduled from late 2021 and early next year. Starlink has already launched 1,500+ satellites elsewhere and are beta testing the service in various African countries.

“The Space market has changed dramatically. It’s not the same market we had a few years ago. It is changing in response to a requirement for connectivity,” says Kimaitha.

SES Network recently unveiled O3b mPower, its next generation of satellites, with plans to initially launch 11 high-speed satellites into orbits that will provide global coverage including for Africa. This will add to the existing 03B satellite that serves African customers too. The firm said it is targeting governments for public-private partnerships to expand internet connectivity into remote areas, boost the resilience of mobile network operators and support landlocked countries in efforts to bridge the equality gap, through connectivity.

“We have countries that are landlocked that do not have access to undersea cables and have to go through multiple countries to get connectivity. There is still demand for good connectivity in those markets and satellite is an answer,” said Kamaitha.

Countries in the Sahel region like Chad, Niger, and Mali, she said represent a huge opportunity for satellite connectivity because they are big and landlocked countries.

Kamaitha listed a growing need for enhanced security and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) as key areas pushing up governments demand for satellite connectivity while a rise in adoption of the Internet of Things—including smart-connected homes—was creating demand on the commercial side.

“The big equation is to explore financing models. Where we have been successful with governments has been where we talk about having things like PPPs, where governments, funding entities or private sector comes in and the solutions can be delivered,” expressed Kamaitha.

In Burkina Faso, for example, said Kamaitha, SES was offering e-governance solutions and connectivity between provinces. In Ethiopia it conducted capacity building and mass training of young people on basic knowledge of installing and maintaining different V-sat technologies.

Space in Africa, a media, analytics and consulting firm, projects the space market to exceed $10 billion in value by 2024 on the back of rising investments.