Mark Gazit is the President and CEO of SkyVision Global Networks a global telecom service provider. Prior to SkyVision, Mr Gazit held an Executive Position at deltathree, a global provider of VoIP and Web-based communication services to businesses and individuals. Previously, Mr Gazit was Executive Vice President for Technology & Infrastructure and Regulation at NetVision LTD, an Internet service and solutions provider in Israel. Before joining NetVision, Mr Gazit co-founded NetMedia International LTD, where he served as Vice President of Technology and Research & Development. Mr Gazit began his career in high-tech communications with WideCom Ltd. Mark Gazit also served in an engineering unit of the Israeli Air Force as a Senior Project Manager.
Much of Africa’s recent progress has been due to the availability of mobile telephones and broadband Internet access. Cellphone use has grown explosively throughout the continent and the Internet has grown at six times the rate in North America. Maintaining this growth calls for backhaul connectivity in regions where there is little fixed infrastructure due to the high cost of rolling out the networks. Satellites can provide the cost-effective, anywhere on the continent, connectivity that ISPs and mobile operators need.
You do not have to look far to find good-news stories about Africa’s economic prospects these days. For instance, on average, the continent’s economies grew by approximately 5.7 per cent in 2007. Africa’s outlook remains positive as well: economic growth is forecast at close to six per cent for both 2008 and 2009. What is behind this growth? Many factors are contributing. The continent is home to a burgeoning middle class whose rising incomes are fuelling consumption. Entrepreneurs are starting businesses every day, bringing jobs and greater prosperity. Widespread debt relief and a commodity price boom are further driving economic gains, and people from emerging economies such as China, India, Malaysia, and South Korea are investing large sums in Africa. In parallel, the demand for telecommunications services and Internet connectivity has exploded. For instance, in the past six years, the number of Internet users in North America grew by 100 per cent. In Africa the number of Internet users grew by six hundred per cent. The price of computers is plummeting as well. Bandwidth appetite To deliver services and connectivity to their expanding subscriber bases, Internet service providers (ISPs) and global system for mobile communications (GSM) operators alike need bandwidth - and lots of it. ISPs require bandwidth to offer Internet access and a host of applications: data communication, file transfer, digital media streaming, distance education, and telemedicine as well as voice over IP (VoIP) and IPTV. Data and video applications increasingly drive demand for GSM bandwidth as much as or more than voice. In fact, in Africa, the distinction between ISPs and mobile operators is much less clear-cut than in more developed parts of the world. Each category of service provider now offers services that encroach on the other’s traditional domains. This blurring - or convergence - of service provider roles is occurring for two main reasons. First, IP allows ISPs to offer voice services, and even video and TV, over the Internet. Second, GSM service providers operate advanced 3G networks that can carry high-speed data. Whereas established mobile service providers in developed countries have to compete with entrenched landline networks and rationalize their own investments in earlier generation, low-speed mobile technology, many African GSM operators escape these restrictions. Starting with a clean slate, these greenfield providers have installed powerful 3G mobile networks. These networks allow service providers to complement their voice offerings with high-speed Internet access, data transfer, and video applications - all delivered to mobile handsets. Combined with the limited reach of traditional telephony networks, this capability has led to cell phones outnumbering hard-wired phones in Africa by ten to one. Satellite communications Where are ISPs and GSM operators getting their bandwidth from? In many cases, satellite plays a critical role, either as a main network backbone or as part of a hybrid terrestrial network. Satellite allows ISPs and GSM operators to provide affordable Internet access and voice communications to locations that would otherwise be either underserved or bypassed completely. In this light, satellite makes Africa’s economic expansion possible. For instance, without having to install cables or telephone lines, ISPs can use satellite links to serve Internet cafés, hotspots, businesses, and individuals virtually anywhere on the continent. These ISPs often combine satellite with worldwide interoperability for microwave access (WiMAX), a wireless broadband technology. This combination permits ISPs to offer Internet access, VoIP, videoconferencing, and video-streaming applications, all over wireless networks. An ISP will divide a city, or an area, into a half dozen cells and put a satellite receiver in each cell. These receivers connect to WiMAX base stations that provide fixed wireless Internet access and services. The cells’ satellite receivers communicate with the ISP’s satellite hub, which links the IP traffic to the Internet. So, with access to such a service, one could walk into an Internet café in Morogora, Tanzania, set up a laptop, and a minute later be speaking to someone in New York City using a VoIP service such as Skype. Satellite plays a similar bridging role in GSM networks. GSM operators often use satellite to backhaul communications between base station controllers or mobile switching centres and remote base transceiver stations - the latter serving as the local cell towers. Operators can set up these base transceiver stations quickly with relatively little expense. Consequently, GSM operators can easily extend the reach of their cellular infrastructures to remote communities and provide voice and data services where even voice was previously unavailable. In many cases, such expansion would be impossible - or prohibitively expense - without satellite communications. Reliability instils confidence Satellite owes its popularity in Africa as much to its reliability and price as it does to its functionality. It seems likely that satellite would be even more popular had unscrupulous satellite companies provided better service in the past. To maximize profits, these operators offered ‘contended’ service, sharing bandwidth among a group of users without specifying service quality. When few use the bandwidth, this approach works fine, but when everyone uses the bandwidth at the same time, which inevitably happened, throughput degraded. Consequently, satellite ended up getting a bad rap from service providers whose customers frequently complained of slow data speeds, bad connections, and dropped calls. Today, reputable satellite providers offer clients service level agreements (SLAs) that specify minimum performance targets. By allocating each user sufficient bandwidth, satellite providers now avoid the problems of the past. Technological gains also contribute to satellite’s increased reliability. Because heavy rain can degrade satellite signal quality and temporarily jeopardize communications, some satellite systems will automatically boost signal strength in step with the severity of rain. When the rain stops, the signal strength returns to normal. Advances such as these mean that when service providers subscribe to satellite services they will receive the bandwidth they, and their customers need when they need it. Innovation, cost and demand Communications reliability is vital to Africa’s up-and-coming economies, but at what price? There is obviously a limit. Fortunately, a number of factors have combined to reduce the price of satellite services over the past several years. For one, the cost of earth station equipment has dropped significantly. One can now purchase a satellite antenna and earth station equipment for less than US$2,000. Satellites themselves have also become more powerful, which helps reduce the size, and therefore cost, of earth station hardware. Satellite engineers are also using advanced encoding schemes to squeeze more data through a given satellite link than they could before. In addition, advanced network management tools allow operators to establish different quality-of-service levels or time-of-day pricing. So, for instance, an operator could discount service prices in the evenings for off-peak applications. Satellite service providers can further reduce prices by capitalizing on inclined-orbit satellites. Operating past their expected lifecycles, these satellites offer transmission rates considerably lower than those of their newer, geostationary counterparts. Inclined-orbit satellites require more-expensive earth stations than geostationary satellites do because the earth stations must be able to track the inclined-orbit spacecraft across the sky. Nevertheless, the low transmission fees offset the higher capital expense. Some satellite providers offer inclined-orbit services for a single monthly fee - one that covers both the satellite capacity and the earth station equipment. This combination spares customers from having to buy the satellite hardware upfront. All these efforts bring down bandwidth prices and make Internet access and voice communications affordable for as broad an audience in Africa as possible. Bridging the divide Essentially, any of the information or services available to Internet users in developed countries is now theoretically available throughout Africa. For example, thanks to satellite and the convergence of data, voice, and video, people in the most remote parts of Africa can feel as if they are sitting in the same classroom as people in the United States. Moreover, because students and instructors alike can now access a vast trove of information online, educational technology is levelling the international playing field by providing equal access to educational resources. Nowadays, traders can use the Internet to check commodities prices, and entrepreneurs can get instant information about markets, suppliers, and competitors. Satellite is also helping Africa’s medical community. A doctor, for instance, in a remote hospital can use a satellite-based Internet service to send a medical image - or even a digital photo - to an expert in a major hospital and receive a second opinion, an opinion that could save a life. Collectively, applications such as these have helped people in Africa to achieve the economic and social advances they have in recent years. In many respects, the investments in telecommunications infrastructure are as vital to the continent’s prospects as investments in highways, electrical grids, and water-supply systems. To help bridge Africa’s digital divide, ISPs and GSM operators need low-cost, reliable, Internet connectivity and large bandwidths. No technology is as well suited to fulfil this role as satellite.