|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2004|
|Topic:||Rascomstar: A Pan African ICT Platform for Connectivity and Development|
Mr Mustapha Elriz is the CEO of Rascomstar-QAF. As the Rascomstar Project Director, (1999-2002), he successfully coordinated the implementation of the Rascomstar-QAF Company, a private African joint venture set up to finance and operate the RASCOM System. Previously, Mr Elriz was Alcatel’s satellite division vice- president for Africa and the Middle East until his election as Rascomstar-QAF’s first CEO. Mustapha Elriz graduated in 1979 from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications in Paris and holds an MBA from the Open Business School in Great-Britain.
The world has entered an era of revolution where information transmission is the driving force of development and economic growth. However, the information revolution requires massive investment in infrastructure to connect populations. The Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation, RASCOM, is an all-African initiative to provide the African continent with a telecommunications infrastructure capable of giving telecommunications access at low cost to every citizen in Africa. This initiative will ensure telephone, information and entertainment access to rural populations at highly competitive rates.
Information era The world has entered an era of revolution where information transmission is the driving force of human development and economic growth. Most African economies are handicapped by poor social and economical development, yet the new information economy is technology-driven. Without access to technology, the gap between Africa and the western world will widen dramatically. Given the right infrastructure, access to information through connectivity is inexpensive and is not geographically discriminating. Thus, this new era represents a unique opportunity to bridge the digital divide between the wealthy and poor and between urban and rural populations. The information revolution is capital-intensive, requiring massive investment in infrastructure to connect populations to telecommunications networks, the information superhighway and broadcast channels. The very nature of business is to pursue profit. The same is true in information transmission. This will naturally result in service providers seeking the high monetary returns offered by urban and corporate markets. It is imperative that, in realising these opportunities, purely financial concerns do not overshadow the needs of marginalised rural people. The information age offers Africa a unique opportunity to expand these advantages for economic, social and competitive gains to and from the African continent. Benefits of connectivity Connectivity includes telephony, linkage to the information superhighway and vital literacy, education and medical platforms as well as entertainment and information broadcasting. By embracing the information age and its comprehensive linkage channels, access to literacy, education, healthcare and information can be enjoyed equally by all populations, regardless of their location and income level. Similarly, the distribution of entertainment and information broadcasting can be increased without discriminating by income or location. Finally and most importantly, people can achieve critical social links with the simple benefit of telephone connections. Connectivity through telephony or Internet will reduce distances and differences between people and dramatically improve human development indexes. The status of African connectivity Africa is far behind the developed world in information infrastructure. This is a function of: ◗ Lack of economic development – historically, colonisation stunted African economic growth ◗ Population distribution – Africa has low population density and great distances between population centres ◗ Low funding availability – Africa is not considered an attractive continent for investment, so it is difficult and costly to raise the funds for capital investment ◗ Lower return on capital investment – the combination of the above factors results in a lower return on investment. Because of the low investment priority placed on Africa, there is no viable satellite wholly dedicated to the African continent. This has further increased the cost of connection and reduced accessibility whilst limiting the quality and spread of connection. The RASCOM project organisation The Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation, RASCOM, was created in May 1992 by all African governments to provide the African continent with appropriate telecommunications infrastructure capable of fostering the development of telecommunications in every African country and giving access to telecommunications services at low cost to every citizen in Africa. RASCOM provides the African continent with dedicated satellite facilities. Rascom-QAF1 provides comprehensive, high quality, telephone, broadcasting and Internet connection, at low cost. It complements the services of existing telecommunications companies, Internet service providers and broadcasters. The initiative does not compete with, but complements, existing national or private ground operations. By being continentally based, the capital cost of the satellite programme is spread over several countries, diluting country costs and risks dramatically and increasing project returns. Notably, RASCOM will ensure telephone, information and entertainment access to rural populations at highly competitive rates. The initiative includes Village Empowerment Terminals using the next generation of VSats. These are integrated communication centres connected via satellite to telephone networks; they provide the local population with telephones, television, computer and DVB access to TV and media broadcasters and the Internet. The centres will be owned and operated by local telecommunication organisations. RASCOM has secured a prime satellite position with the best footprint for Africa from the ITU (International Telecom-munication Union) and has the support of 44 African countries. The first Rascom satellite should be launched in early 2006. RASCOMSTAR-QAF, an affiliate private company headquartered in Port-Louis Mauritius, is developing the space and ground system infrastructure. Its first round of financing has entirely ensured the construction of the satellite and the development of the ground segment. Mission and services The RascomStar mission will provide Africa with three categories of services: Rural communication services RascomStar provides satellite services to African telco’s, who in turn can offer low-cost communication services – voice, fax, low rate data and Internet access – to their end-users often in rural areas where fixed public telephone networks do not often reach. Connect- on-demand services These include direct interconnection, on a call-by-call basis, between stations located anywhere on the African continent to provide inter-urban or international links for telephony, fax and data transmission. Bandwidth lease services Different services, based on satellite bandwidth capacity leasing, are provided on a static basis: Trunking services for low and high rate links, within African and between Africa and Europe or Middle East GSM back-hauling networks TV and sound broadcasting services Internet networking/access solutions Other services, such as VSAT corporate networks and news-gathering. General concept of operation The RascomStar-QAF system consists of three segments: The space segment The traffic management facilities The integrated communication segment, including rural communication and connectivity-on-demand facilities. The space segment The RascomStar-QAF system consists of a geostationary satellite covering the African continent, using two spot beams in Ku-band and global coverage in C band, with the associated ground control, mission and communications facilities. The satellite has twenty-four 36MHz-equivalent transponders. The Ku-band footprints have the power and bandwidth for reception and transmission by small satellite terminals. Alcatel Space, under a turnkey contract, is responsible for putting the satellite in orbit. The contract includes building the satellite, launch services, the ground control segment and risk management (launch and satellite insurance). Rural communications and connectivity-on-demand The system is made up of many ‘Rural Terminals’ with small, 1.2m, antennas each with two telephone interfaces – normally connected to a phone booth. Telephones in the booth support prepaid cards, scratch cards and the like to collect revenues under the control of the Network Station. The Rural Terminal should cost about US$1400. Gateways provide connections to and from the public telephone network. They can be equipped with a few channels – 15 for on-demand connectivity for a small city, to several hundred channels for large regional gateways. The number of gateways for a fully deployed network can reach 100. There are two network stations (NS), a primary and a back up, to control all the signalling over the network. These control and manage all stations and all calls, they collect all usage information and remotely control public phones. Connectivity Throughout Africa, the rural terminals will operate in Ku-band. Gateways and network stations will operate in C-band to communicate with each other over the entire African footprint. In addition, either within the northern or southern beam, direct terminal-to-terminal connections can be established. Rural terminal A rural terminal provides three interfaces. Two are telephone or Fax/Data lines which have all the features needed, such as ring generator and tax pulse. There is one L-band interface to connect a DVB-S receiver for TV or Internet multicasting reception. The terminal consists of a single outdoor unit containing: A small antenna (typically 1.2 m) One block-up converter (BUC) of typically 2W One low-noise block converter (LNB) One base-band unit (BBU) Power supply and telephone interfaces. The rugged terminal is designed for the rural environment. Outdoor units are packaged within a sealed, weatherproof enclosure. The rural terminal is powered by direct current, using solar/battery power. It is equipped to shut down unused circuits to reduce power requirements. To minimise field maintenance, no adjustment or calibration is required. Monitoring and control is performed automatically by the centralised network management. Software can be downloaded through signalling circuits. Gateway Gateways are the key elements to interconnect the Public Switched Telephony Networks (PSTN) to the RASCOM Network. Each gateway consists of: The gateway radio system using: o Fixed 3.7 m C-band antenna o Redundant solid-state power amplifier for transmission o Redundant low-noise block converter for the reception The gateway management subsystem The gateway telecom system (modem and traffic functions.) Gateway capacity can range from 120 circuits to 960 circuits, in 120 circuit modules for rural communication services and from 15 circuits to 60 circuits, in 15 circuit modules for connectivity-on-demand. Depending on the needs of the telco, a gateway might carry only rural communication services, connectivity-on-demand services, or both. Central management architecture The rural communication service and connectivity-on-demand networks are controlled from a single point – the network station. This optimises on-board spectrum allocation to maximise the sale of satellite circuit capacity during peak hours. It also makes it possible to minimise the usage of terrestrial infrastructure and optimise routing between terminals and the public telephone network. This optimised routing can be used for international calls, when authorised by national operators, or for nationwide calling if there are several gateways in the country. Control and management functions have been simplified to ease the tasks of national and regional operators. These tasks are mainly administrative and related to the network’s subscribers and terminals: registration, call parameter modification and deletion of the terminal access within the network. National operators will have full management control over their networks, thanks to intensive developments in the area of intelligent networking. Conclusion The information age offers Africa a unique opportunity to bridge the digital divide, bringing human and economic development to all of the people of Africa, including rural populations. The RASCOM project is a key instrument in the realisation of the NEPAD vision.