|Topic:||Reaching where others cannot reach|
Peter Gbedemah is the CEO of Gateway Communications; he has more than 20 years’ experience in the communications and technology markets, and a broad knowledge of Africa’s regulatory, economic and business environment. Mr Gbedemah has worked extensively in Africa in management, systems engineering and business development. Before establishing Gateway Communications, he held a number of senior executive roles with Citigroup, BT, BT North America and Net Source Communications. Peter Gbedemah earned a BSc. degree in Engineering from Birmingham University.
Satellites are a mainstay of mobile connectivity – including for Internet access – in Africa. Much of Africa’s population lives in often sparsely populated and geographically difficult to reach rural regions. Traditional wired or even wireless networks are prohibitively costly to rollout, operate and maintain, but satellite communications reach everywhere without the need to rollout a network. Although computers are too expensive for most Africans, mobile phone usage is growing rapidly and satellites can connect mobile users to the Internet.
There is a growing network of journalists in Africa that write articles, take pictures, film footage and submit content solely through their mobile phones. These mobile reporters are not intentional pioneers of convergent media or modern-age guerrilla journalism. They are products of technological circumstance and necessity, working in an environment that much of the West has never faced. Within a region, the timing of the adoption of the Internet versus the mobile phone affects the relationship that citizens have with the technology, and in turn influences the services used. In North America and Europe, where Internet arrived before – or alongside – the mobile phone, the phone is seen and used mainly as a tool for voice calls. Those who send emails via their mobiles do so as an adjunct to computers in the home or at work. In these regions, mobiles are used for such tasks only when ‘more traditional’ means are unavailable at the moment. In most of Africa, no such established means of accessing the Internet exist. For the most part, they never have. While computer literacy may be high in Africa, ownership is not. Desktop and laptop computers are most often unattainable, usually proving impractical and expensive. In stark contrast, mobile phone ownership is widespread across the African continent. Moreover, satellite Internet access has led to multi-faceted and innovative usage of a technology that has become integral to Africans in a way not mirrored anywhere else in the world. One giant leap for Africa The mobile phone market in Africa has exploded in the last ten years, defying all expectations. At present, the continent has the largest growth rate of cellular subscribers in the world, predominantly through pay-as-you-go services, ultimately resulting in the leapfrogging of generations of old technology. Usage rose from just one in 50 people at the start of the century to nearly one third of the population. The mobile service grew five thousand per cent between 1998 and 2003 and growth has continued unabated; today, there are more than a quarter of a billion subscribers. In Kenya, for example, in the five-year period leading up to 2007, the number of mobile phone subscribers increased more than six-fold to 6.5 million. All the while landlines lingered at around 300,000, housed mainly in government offices. This statistical profile of the development of African mobile telecommunications provides a contextual backdrop to the proliferation of mobile Internet and service usage in response to the absence of infrastructure in other sectors. The extent of growth has significantly affected business and social life throughout Africa. Research provides evidence of a link between social and economic development at all levels and the establishment of mobile phone networks. Developing nations, where more than ten citizens in every 100 owned mobiles between 1996 and 2003, had 0.59 per cent higher GDP growth than an otherwise identical country, (Vodafone report: Impact Of Mobile Phones In Africa). The African ICT sector is vibrant and continues to develop, not least with the launch of GPRS (2.5G mobile service), which gives millions of Africans access to the Internet for the first time. It opens up a vast array of potential applications, from information and news to mobile banking, entertainment (music, video, ringtones) to e-commerce and education. Moreover, African’s use their mobiles in ways many users in the UK, for example, have never even considered. The emergence of new services, such as micro-payment prepaid recharging and single rate inter-regional roaming, are the result of a thriving market where intense competition drives continued success. Mobile phones remain unchallenged when it comes to getting online in Africa. Wireless technology is undoubtedly the way forward for future connectivity. It is the only means to economically and efficiently rollout high speed broadband across the continent – given the difficulty of establishing fixed-wire networks to cover vast areas of unpopulated country. Nevertheless, it seems computers pose little threat. When it comes to home Internet access, few Africans can pay for it. It is ironic that the poorest continent on the planet has the most expensive Internet prices, largely due to the scarcity of international bandwidth and the scarcity of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). To compare the markets, there were an estimated 50 million Internet subscribers in Africa last year, less than one-fifth of the current number of mobile subscribers. Over half the continent’s Internet’s users were located in South Africa and the North African states. Penetration in Sub Saharan Africa remains negligible at three percent. Of the two million fixed broadband subscribers last year, only five countries had penetration in excess of one per 100 inhabitants. The lowest ranked OECD country was Mexico with a penetration of 4.6, 38 times the national average for Africa. Internet access is not yet the be all and end all of Africa’s communication needs. A Gallup World Poll confirmed radio as the most important medium when it came to keeping up with the news. However, while literacy rates or the cost of purchasing a computer may not change, for example, we are likely to see Internet use proliferate due to increased access via cyber cafés and, most of all, mobile phones. The latter has not been constrained by the potential barriers of income, education, age, gender, electrical supply and rural location. Moreover, full utilisation of the technology to meet needs and demand in Africa is largely dependent on satellite technology, which much of the world has written-off for routine communications purposes. The satellite solution The satellite technology, first spoken of by Arthur C Clarke in Wireless World at the end of the Second World War, is the same that is now driving the communications revolution in Africa. Satellite technology has come a long way since the author’s musings, Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 seven years later and COMSAT’s Early Bird, the first global commercial satellite, taking to the sky in 1966. Cable and fibre optic technology may have usurped satellite alternatives in many markets and parts of the world, but the reality of African geography highlights their limitations. For now, satellite is the only option, especially in landlocked countries such as Uganda. Remote locations and lack of infrastructure make wire-line telephone or broadband access an impossibility for much of the continent’s population. Cables can be cut, and fibre is not always reliable. They incur huge costs for infrastructure investment, operation, management and maintenance. In spite of this, in the realm of telecommunications, satellite has been practically dismissed in much of the world. Africa benefits from the reliability, contingency, ease of deployment, access and reach that satellite communication offers. There are undoubtedly issues to overcome, those of expense and the need to shape and accelerate data for satellite, but the process enables the distribution of several hundred megabits of data every second, and the traffic is doubling every six months. Satellite technology delivers a volume and variety of data to places where other technologies simply cannot reach. Where is the network anyway? When we talk about pushing the limits of the network, Africa forces us to redefine what we mean by ‘network’. The continent has proved a vibrant trailblazer, using a global network, within an increasingly globalised world. It is difficult at this stage to place limits on what is possible in Africa. It is reasonable to say we are only at the beginning. The whole communications landscape is about to change. Satellite is enabling a revolution for mobile data that will take us far beyond what the Western world is contemplating. The rich blend of technology, geography, culture, societal circumstance and communicative need has heralded dramatic growth and variety, and with it, fascinating polarisation. While Pygmies in the Congo guide loggers away from community forests using handheld global positioning systems, satellite-tracking devices, used to combat the threat of locust swarms, save tons of farm crops. Multi-lingual mobile trading in the agriculture sector, money transfer to phones for purchase of goods such as petrol, and vital health information sent to doctors and medical facilities via mobiles, to track and serve patients, are signs of what is in store. The necessary infrastructure is present, the satellites are above and the mushrooming market is ripe for the inevitable expansion. An opportunity awaits for developers to provide mobile applications that can make a difference to people’s lives, whether it is to provide weather reports for fishermen, learning applications for teachers, or water sanitation guidelines for rural communities. In spite of the growing clamour for computer-based technology, such as the much-publicised One Laptop Per Child project, the mobile phone is the most important bit of technology for African development. The growth of mobile technology should be recognised as a pertinent indication of what is possible through satellite technology everywhere, now and in the future. The limitations of satellite are dwarfed by the restrictions self-imposed by major telecommunications companies and carriers who have neglected its potential. We believe that satellite can push the boundaries of connectivity more than any other communications infrastructure in Africa today. Satellite will let us reach the people and communities that others cannot – making possible the connectivity that has long been only an impossible dream by going mobile.