Despite the surge in mobile internet adoption in the past few years, about 800 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa remain unconnected.
Broadband Commission, an initiative established by UNESCO and the ITU, estimates that about USD 100 billion worth of capital investments would be needed to achieve universal broadband connectivity in Africa by 2030. The Commission found out that almost 250,000 new 4G base stations and at least 250,000 kilometres of new fibre infrastructure across the region would be required to close the internet access gap.
A further study by Xalam Analytics estimates that at least additional 230,000 kilometres of fibre is required to achieve universal access on the continent by 2030, with 25,000 extra kilometres needed to support existing infrastructure in cities across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Satellite broadband has a vital role to play in helping achieve universal connectivity on the continent, especially in terms connecting nearly 100 million people who live in remote rural areas with no access to traditional cellular mobile networks.
Konnect Africa, a wholly-owned subsidiary of French-based global satellite operator Eutelsat, is bullish on deploying satellite broadband to bridge the connectivity gap on the continent.
In 2017, Eutelsat repurchased InfraMed’s 21% minority shares to wholly own Broadband4Africa, a subsidiary it founded to provide satellite broadband services on the African continent, for 28 million euros. Eutelsat rebranded Broadband4Africa into Konnect Africa and set up a new management team with a depth of experience in the African telecommunications sector to aggressively move deeper into the African connectivity market.
Konnect Africa first launched leveraging leased capacity on Yahsat’s Al-Yah 2 satellite. It expanded the service in 2018 on Al-Yah 3 satellite in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria before subsequently launching a dedicated satellite named KONNECT (previously dubbed African Broadband Satellite) in January to provide full coverage over 45 countries in Africa.
In a recent chat with Space in Africa, Jean-Claude Tshipama, CEO of Konnect Africa, discusses the company’s operations and impact on bridging the gap in connectivity in Africa.
Read the full interview transcript.
Tell us a little more about Konnect Africa and the Africa-focused KONNECT satellite launched into space in January onboard Ariane 5 rocket. What is unique about this satellite in terms of technical specification and service offering?
Konnect Africa is an excellent initiative of the Eutelsat Group, a leading worldwide satellite operator based in France, with a focus on servicing Africa. The project started three years ago with a leased capacity that allowed us to kick off in almost 20 countries in Africa.
We invested in a new satellite, and I was physically present at the launch in French Guiana last January. The satellite has an electric platform that maintains it in orbit, and is hundred percent electric. The satellite has a capacity of 75 gigabyte which provides enhanced coverage. That means we can serve more countries, enterprises and government initiatives across the continent. We are servicing about 20 countries today and plan to cover 45 countries before the end of the year.
We are going to be able to give a service of up 100 megabytes per second. This means that we are going to multiply the average market speed of a satellite internet by five. The maximum satellite internet speed in the market is 20, 25 or some 15 megabytes per second. It means that people will experience broadband with high-speed internet that will increase their productivity and enable applications in e-learning, video, etcetera. Apart from the speed of the satellite, we are providing quality service to the population based on our experience with managing a global fleet of 40 satellites.
In terms of coverage, Konect Africa is on track to provide the best quality service for Africans; whether you are in Lagos, Sokoto, Kinshasa, Abidjan or wherever in Africa. The service will remain optimal for users in capital cities as well as for people in rural areas.
How do you think KONNECT satellite would improve telecommunication infrastructure in Africa? I see you’ve briefly talked about that in terms of speed and coverage. Are there other vital areas you foresee improvements when KONNECT becomes fully operational?
Existing terrestrial infrastructure has limitations in geography and fibre is mainly deployed on the coastal side of countries. Some landlocked countries, such as Chad and Niger, see less benefit from fibre. Also, about 60 to 70 per cent of the population of Africa lives outside the main cities. It means that the majority of the population lack access to terrestrial infrastructure. Another issue is that businesses will not invest in such infrastructure in rural areas. For example, a GSM operator will not go into a small village in Ghana with a population of 300 people to install a tower to provide connectivity service. Satellite connectivity comes on board to fill the gap in terms of connecting the people who otherwise would not have access via existing terrestrial infrastructure.
It is important to us, and we see the United Nations and ITU Broadband Commission are now focusing on how we can fill the gap of telecom infrastructure across the continent. Satellite is the solution because our business model doesn’t rely on how many people in a particular city or village will be connected. Their consumption will pay for the service considering the number of people that are within the coverage we are servicing. Satellites allow us to go beyond the main cities.
In 2017, Broadband4Africa was rebranded Konnect Africa, and in 2018 you came on board to lead the project, signalling that Eutelsat has been very active about this project. What does Konnect Africa mean to the Group’s overall business goals going forward?
Our goal is to make sure that every single village where we operate receives the best service directly delivered to them to meet the needs of the population. We are connecting 3,600 schools in DR Congo. The Konnect project is designed to impact people’s lives, and more concretely, connect schools, hospitals, agriculture businesses and farmers. We recently connected the clinics fighting against Covid19 in DR Congo, Nigeria and South Africa. To meet the needs of the population, we are not just selling capacity to integrators or MNOs. We make sure that the service is simple and at the right price so that people can afford it, including those in the villages. That is the long term impact that we envision.
How would you describe the market reception of the business model?
Excellent! Each country where we knocked at the door they opened halls for Konnect Africa. Our customers, including mining companies, farmers and churches, have experienced the very high quality of our service. We are connecting churches because we know it is one of the crucial needs of people in Africa.
In one country we had a company that wanted to pay twice the price. And we asked them why; they said it had been so long since they experienced such a high-quality service! People have experienced the Konnect Wifi, a shared community wifi for the villages. We put equipment in the middle of nowhere in the bushes and allow people within the village to connect. They pay from 50 US cents per hour, day or week using a voucher. We have deployed the service in DR Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, and it is working well.
It sounds like you are involved directly with the end-users. How involved are you in the value chain? Are you selling to mobile network operators, ISPs or directly to the users?
We create value for the market. We set up the company in each country and operate under the brand Konnect. We design the packages, and then we make those packages available to local distributors. They are the ones that sell to the end-users. We don’t sell to end-users. We install the equipment and train a satellite maintenance team who work with the locals.
Where do you see the most traction in terms of market segments or service type? Do you see more traction from government versus commercial clients?
We have seen traction from everywhere on the government side and commercial clients. We get requests and begin discussions with many governments and commercial clients, from large to small enterprises and other stakeholders. In terms of countries, we started in Nigeria a couple of years ago, now DR Congo is picking up, same as South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire. Generally, in each country where we operate, we have seen tremendous interest.
So far, how many countries do you service?
As of today, we service 19 countries. The number will be doubled in three months from now because in late October – November the new satellite will go live. When it is fully available, we shall double the number of countries. We have already prepared the systems to meet the demand by the time the new satellite is fully operational.
Where is your office? How many staff members are focused on the Konnect Africa project?
We have staff in each country, in DR Congo, Nigeria, South Africa. In each country, we set up a local company under the Konnect Africa brand: Konnect Africa DRC, Konnect South Africa, Konnect Tanzania, Konnect Côte d’Ivoire. We have people on logistics, commercial, marketing, and legal to cover the operations in-country. All the technical teams and support are based in France, the headquarters of Konnect Africa. We also have a team in Italy in charge of the day-to-day management of the satellite.
Where do you see the future of connectivity in Africa?
Since the COVID-19 crisis, we have realized that connectivity is one of the critical resources people need to have as they are required to work from home, including members of parliament. So people realize that connectivity for daily business is critical. I see Africa picking up in terms of the demand for quality internet because the market is increasing.
It puts pressure on us to deliver in some countries like in the Congo Brazzaville, where we had a project during the pandemic. We had to safely lead our teams around so that they can connect people because we work to prioritize service to the community.
What it shows is that everywhere there is a need for broadband services. The United Nations qualified five megabytes per second as high-speed internet. For the communities to be able to experience this, they need to deploy a better service. We see more opportunities as digitization grows across the continent.