In this article, we set out some examples of challenges for satellite broadband service providers expanding into Africa, by reference to specific African jurisdictions and identify potential workarounds, where available. We will focus only on the regulatory regimes applicable to the provision of telecommunications services and operation of terrestrial ground stations. Broadband services in Africa
Only 27% of the population in Africa has internet access.1 While there is no shortage of fiber optic cable around coastal areas of Africa to support fiber networks for the provision of broadband services, there is not much fiber inland, and terrestrial broadband networks are typically limited to urban areas. This is because the vast size of the African land mass and the defined distinction between urban and rural areas can make broadband network rollouts outside of saturated urban areas logistically difficult and uneconomical. While there may be opportunities for expansion of satellite broadband services into Africa, there are a number of regulatory challenges that should be considered before any expansion decision is made. These include:
Regulatory challenges 1. License unavailability
As such, satellite has become a key solution to the low availability of internet access in Africa, and there are numerous satellite broadband providers globally looking to take up opportunities for expansion into Africa. However, difficulties that apply to traditional terrestrial broadband networks are not applicable to telecommunications satellite systems, where uniform coverage over a given area is guaranteed from a single point in space.2
Before liberalization of its telecommunications markets in 2019, Ethiopia was a closed market with a single state monopoly telecoms provider, Ethio Telecom. A new telecommunications regulatory and licensing regime has now been established; however, the nature of the liberalization process means there are still barriers to entry into Ethiopia for providers of satellite broadband services. Ethiopia
On the basis of the above, direct entry into the Ethiopian market as a license holder and service provider is currently unlikely to be a realistic opportunity for satellite broadband providers. In particular: Despite the creation of a new regulatory regime, the market is being opened gradually and the new regulator (the Ethiopian Communications Authority) currently only has plans to permit entry into the market of two additional players, with the award of two Telecommunications Service Licenses by way of public tender. In our view, it is very likely that these two licenses will be won by mobile network operators.
While the new regulatory regime does contemplate other licenses being available, there is currently no clarity around when such licenses will be offered.