|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East II 2003|
|Topic:||Communications via Satellite: An Accelerator of African Development|
|Title:||Chief, International Programme Development|
|Organisation:||Global VSAT Forum – GVF|
In Africa, both geography and economics make access to ICT difficult. Satellite technology provides quick, low cost, access to voice and sophisticated data based services. Nevertheless, burdensome licensing, heavy customs duties, and bureaucratic equipment approval requirements impede the use of satellite terminals. Eliminating regulatory barriers and facilitating satellite-based access promotes socio-economic development, greater educational opportunities, better health services, stimulates private sector business and investment, increases employment and the growth of foreign earnings – quite a return from communications technology!
Déjà vu? It is now almost universally accepted that information and communication technologies (ICT) play a key role in the socio-economic progress of the developing regions of the world. Indeed, with the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), ICT-focused businesses, civil society, as well as government and inter-governmental organisations, seem to recognise their historic opportunity to partner together and place ICT in the service of development. Haven’t we heard these words, and applauded these admirable intentions, many, many times before? Haven’t we seen opportunities wasted, because of institutional failures to translate wish-list international policy into practical action and regulatory implementation? Yes, we have. In significant part, this has been the result of a failure to exploit an established and proven technology that can cost-effectively address the urgent connectivity needs of Africa and the entire developing world. A lofty resource Communication over fixed satellite networks is not a new technology. Right now, it is bringing the benefits of Internet Protocol (IP)-based applications to an expanding market. Satellite-based networks have been around for almost twenty years serving the communications requirements of the consumer and government markets as well as the large and small-to-medium enterprise sector. Indeed, the Global VSAT Forum, the GVF, itself has very successfully brought together Africans and non-Africans to bring greater connectivity to a vast, communications hungry, continent. Satellite communications product and service providers have solutions ready to meet the requirements of citizen/consumer, enterprise, and government end user markets. The latest generations of satellite earth and space segment systems uses smaller and cheaper satellite terminals, carries growing volumes of traffic, over low cost orbital bandwidth carried by more powerful satellites. Higher functionality, at lower cost, means that satellite services can support a greater range of domestic and international communications objectives than ever before – take this snap-shot of typical services: · Internet Access · Broadband Data Communications · Rural Telephony · Public Switched Telephone Network Infrastructure Extension · News Distribution · Distance Learning · Telemedicine · Disaster Recovery · Multicast Services · Land Mobile Communications · Government Closed User Groups · Intergovernmental & Corporate Applications · National & Multinational Networks · Aeronautical & Maritime Links Key to the cost-effective and efficient delivery of these services is the unique set of characteristics of satellite-based networks and systems that bring such essential benefits as: · Communication that is independent of location · A wide area of coverage within a satellite footprint · Availability of bandwidth at competitive cost · Independence from inadequate/failure prone terrestrial infrastructure · Rapid deployment of ground networks · Low cost per added site as network size increases · Uniform service characteristics across a network The ability to deliver the services indicated above, together with the characteristics listed are an ideal combination to serve both the needs of Africa’s isolated villagers and its corporate headquarters in capital city business districts. In Africa today, the vast majority of people still spend their lives in remote villages or within an economically isolated shantytown on the periphery of a major metropolis. The great distances and lack of infrastructure make it difficult even to make a simple telephone call in much of Africa. Accordingly, public telephony, both for better-off private homes and pay phones in public call offices or village telecentres, is increasingly being delivered via a satellite terminal. Networks of such terminals interface transparently with existing telephone networks and provide seamless continuity with the national Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). Telephones connected by satellite provide voice, fax, and data channels in places never before reached by public communications. Isolated villagers in such countries as Botswana, Ethiopia, and South Africa use these systems to deal directly with the marketplaces re-sell their produce and products. Policy advance From a global perspective, the WSIS will follow on from the Millennium Declaration commitment to specific strategic objectives to promote public health and access to education – essential precursors to the eradication of poverty and the fostering of economic growth – by including the integrated application of ICT to those strategies. For Africa, the WSIS will follow the assumption by the leaders of the continent of collective responsibility to promote the holistic socio-economic development priorities of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). In summary, these priorities are to place the nations of Africa on the path to sustainable growth; to halt the marginalisation of Africa in the process of globalisation; and, enhance the integration of the continent into the global economy. The e-Africa Commission has been established by NEPAD to facilitate the full application of ICT to these priorities. It is widely recognised that satellite-based communication will be instrumental in the continent’s socio-economic development – attracting investment, facilitating indigenous enterprise, and developing an educated and healthy citizenry. The ubiquity and economy of satellite-based connectivity is evidenced by the practical application of international telecommunications policy as exemplified in the Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite-Memorandum of Understanding and the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations. · The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) GMPCS-MoU is designed to reduce or eliminate burdensome licensing, customs, and equipment type approval requirements associated with the use of mobile and fixed satellite terminals. · The Tampere Convention is an international legally binding instrument to facilitate the immediate provision of fixed satellite terminals and other telecommunications services for disaster recovery programmes. Its key significance is in that it provides for the reduction or removal of regulatory barriers during a crisis and allows for arrangements whereby emergency telecommunications systems can become permanent networks for the delivery of additional services. The right conditions, the right tools for the job Clearly, access is not only about infrastructure. It is also about the effective implementation of such international agreements as these, and, even more importantly, establishing legal and regulatory frameworks that are conducive to the use of satellite-based services by businesses, consumers and the general citizenry. Such frameworks, however, may not be easily realised. Once upon a time, when telecommunications were in the hands of state-owned monopolies, regulation was about taxing profits and imposing universal service obligations. The consequence of this was stagnation – poor service quality and high prices. The economic drive towards liberalisation and privatisation that started in the 1980s, combined with the technological drive towards digitalisation in the 1990s, brought about the convergence of communications and information technology. Progress in this has been facilitated at times and, at others, impeded by regulations. Some developing countries have shaped policy and regulatory regimes that are appropriate for this new environment and have enabled and accelerated effective convergence by facilitating the use of satellites. Indeed, many national administrations have recognised the opportunities inherent in adopting policy and regulation that will encourage technological ‘leap-frogging’ and avoid traditional patterns of linear development in telecommunications and in other sectors. They recognise that this is the only way to overcome Africa’s connectivity backlog. In developing regions, the lack of any extensive infrastructure or dependence upon past technologies often makes it easier for alternative, more cost-effective, technologies to make inroads as long as regulations facilitating the new technologies have been adopted. Throughout the world, including Africa, national administrations are implementing important reforms. They are ending the monopolies that protect the incumbent telecommunications provider, reducing high licensing fees and extortionate customs duties, and introducing accessible and transparent licensing procedures. These regulatory changes, to meet the demand for Internet connectivity, need also to facilitate the use of satellite systems to provide economically viable connectivity. Policy makers and regulators, though, often need to be reminded of ability that satellite equipment and services have to provide IP-based solutions and to address, in part, the digital divide. Essential factors in development World bank studies in many countries have demonstrated that access to telecommunications has catalysed local economic and social development. The studies show that a country’s GDP, and equitable per capita distribution, is directly related to investment in telecommunications infrastructure. Connecting much of the developing world with a terrestrial infrastructure of copper, fibre, and microwave is not economically feasible. Laying fibre optic cable around the continental shelf of Africa with landing points at major coastal cities only addresses the connectivity requirements of a small part of the continent’s inhabitants. Terrestrial connectivity will never be as cost-effective as satellite links for smaller towns and remote village communities. It is not surprising that during the last decade over half-a-million very small aperture satellite terminals – VSAT terminals – have been deployed in more than 120 countries. They provide highly reliable telecommunications services, low deployment and operating costs, and sufficient flexibility to enable cost-effective solutions for everything from the stripped-down rural voice services to fully loaded multimedia services. Another 500,000 receive-only satellite terminals are deployed for IP-multicasting. Today, more than 40 per cent of Africa’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are connected directly, or indirectly through another ISP, via satellite. Conclusion The Global VSAT Forum’s International Satellite Policy Declaration encourages national administrations to eliminate the unnecessary regulatory barriers that inhibit the progressive deployment of VSAT networks. Permitting such networks to provide satellite-based access on an open and competitive basis, to citizens and businesses alike, builds up access to cost-effective digital communication. Such access, together with universal access policies, promotes socio-economic development, greater educational opportunities, better health services, stimulates private sector business and investment, increases employment and the growth of foreign earnings – not bad for a communications technology!