Compared to 2013, 2014 was comparatively a quieter year for new launches in Africa… Arguably, the most significant new launch for Africa came in October with the Russian Satellite Communications Company’s (RSCC) Express-AM6. While RSCC has been established as a satellite operator since 1967, this is the first of three new spacecraft it is planning for Africa as part of a complete renewal of its entire fleet.
The heavy-class space vehicle has been deployed at 53˚ E and carries 72 C-, Ku-, Ka- and L-band transponders, bringing its combined capacity to more than 2 700 MHz. Express-AM6 became operational earlier in 2015, and as well as providing broadcast, broadband, VSAT, governmental, etc., services in its home territories, RSCC said the satellite can also be used for international projects to benefit Russian and foreign users in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Satcoms: Interview with Andrey KIRILLOVICH, Director of integration and projects, RSCC
2014 and beginning of 2015 were a very busy period for RSCC. It negotiated pre-launch contracts, created partnerships and is also identifying prospect applications and verticals to focus on. It also worked on different projects such as the TV distribution platform that is developing in partnership with Romantis. Starting from summer 2015, it will open a new TV hotspot over sub-Saharan Africa to support broadcasters from Africa, Europe and Middle East that need distribution of their content across the continent.
And of course, there has also been the successful launch of four satellites. Two of them cover sub-Saharan Africa: Express-AM6 launched in Q4 2014 to 53˚E, and Express-AM7 launched in Q1 2015 to 40˚E.
According to Andrey Kirillovich, RSCC is one of the leaders in the industry as its satellites use the “most advanced” technologies and solutions. “This includes electric propulsion implemented on Express-AM6 which gave us an opportunity to deliver more transponders in orbit and provide African service providers with very good price offering.
“Besides that, Express-AM7 carries narrow regional high power C and Ku-band beams with frequency re-use, enabling the best coverage of West, South or East Africa, as better throughput”.
On the subject of fibre expansion in Africa, Kirillovich does not see this as a threat to satellite, and instead believes it stimulates demand growth.
“Submarine cables, WiMax, LTE and other terrestrial technologies come to Africa but they remain in urban areas only. Most locations that are outside big cities still use satellite or hybrid networks. The Ka-band rush is slowing down, it has occupied its niche. So traditional C and Ku remain in demand, but with more regional focus.
We see increasing demand for good regional coverage, rather than for entire continent.
“The latest trend is that the hub stations are more often located inside the region or a country. A high power footprint in this region is therefore needed to bring the costs down, squeeze more Mbps from MHz and provide a competitive offering. This is a distinctive characteristic of Express-AM7.”
Kirillovich says a few years ago, submarine cable and satellite were a bottleneck for connectivity in Africa. However, during recent years, the supply of trunking links has increased, prices have fallen, and all this has rapidly led to cutting the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world.
“The majority of the traffic reaching Africa is content, for both businesses and consumers. And this content is still located outside Africa. This means that international traffic is still a significant part of connectivity pricing on the continent - up to 50%.
“There are two ways to decrease this share: further development of local networks; and through development and creation of local African content. This is happening already. In addition to that, hubs are more often being installed locally, the costs of trunking links are decreasing, and low cost smartphones are beginning to appear. So the role of satellite in all this is to provide local connectivity.”
He claims that with its new satellites, RSCC can support all these trends by delivering wide beams for international traffic and trunking on Express-AM6 in 53E; and by the enhancement of regional coverage in West, East and South Africa for local connectivity on Express-AM7 in 40E. That all sound like a good plan. But what are the challenges tjat Africa will need to overcome to enable all this?
“Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa still do not have a well developed national communications network that can provide reliable broadband services for local people and business. This is a plan for future. Almost all countries have got access to submarine cable as a good internet backbone. But inside the country, when going deeper into the continent, communication links are still a bottleneck that prevents ICT growth and development. “Countries need government initiatives to improve this situation, and satellite is one of the ways to eliminate these local bottlenecks quickly. RSCC can offer various solutions.
“Another important challenge is related to broadcasting. There is a very good environment for development of media business in Africa, since there is a plenty of cultures, ethnic groups, and the market is very fragmented. The current trend is the shift of content creation to Africa (i.e. ‘Nolly/River/Zollywood’). It is this local content that attracts the highest demand. This leads to very good opportunities for multiple media platforms such as DTH, distribution, FTA or subscription service. We are going to implement all these on our new broadcasting platform at 53˚ E in partnership with Romantis.
“The final interesting trend is cloud computing and data centers. Africa is one of the regions where this may become a mainstream application. Moreover, there is a great shortage of skilled IT staff in Africa which will also stimulate the demand for cloud-based applications and managed services. RSCC is also approaching this trend and can offer customers a turn-key solution of hosting a VSAT hub at main African data center premises”.
Over the course of this year, RSCC’s plans include firstly completing in-orbit testing and starting commercial operations forExpress-AM6 and Express-AM7. The launch of a third satellite, Express-AM8, which will offer Ku-band coverage of entire African continent, is scheduled for June 2015.
“Once all three satellites are there, RSCC will have a well-balanced portfolio of African footprints”, says Kirillovich. “We will have a wide pan-African C and Ku beam for trunking, cellular backhaul and TV distribution, and narrow high-power regional C and Ku-band beams for corporate VSAT, broadband and government networks.”
African Wireless Communications Yearbook 2015