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Over the years, Africa has made great strides in enhancing its telecommunications infrastructure, whether through successful landings of submarine cables or through the satellites industry that has seen enormous growth in the past couple of years. Several African countries have successfully launched satellites into orbit, which reflects the upward trend that this industry is taking in the second largest continent in the world.

According to the African Space Industry annual report of 2019, the African space market is now worth over $7 billion annually and projects to grow over 40% in the next five years to exceed $10 billion by 2024.

Calls have been echoed by several African countries to establish a space agency. Those calls were finally headed by the African Union in February 2019, when Egypt was endorsed as the official host of the headquarters of the AU African Space Agency which is set to focus on four main pillars: observation, communication, navigation and positioning, and astronomy. The African Union announced that the Agency will be established in 2023. Such a step will stop fragmentation of the space activities in Africa and will allow the dialogue with other space entities across the border.

Satellites: Essential requirement for digital transformation in Africa

We’re living in the era of digital transformation which is based on connectivity and speed. Africa is also gearing up for digitalization; however, many people still lack the access to broadband, especially in Africa’s rural areas. That’s where satellites play a major role because they can reach remote areas and provide coverage regardless of geographical obstacles.

Access to high speed broadband connectivity is one of the elements leading to socio-economic development and growth. Satellites are the perfect means to achieve this in Africa and to offer Africans the opportunity to benefit from the latest technologies, use cases and applications while generating new revenue streams.

Digital transformation is coupled with an increase in demand for capacity. When seamless connectivity is available, new opportunities will be unlocked, including e-learning, IoT use cases, artificial intelligence, etc. Satellites will allow operators to deliver a broader range of services at lower costs and with a much better quality.

Egypt leads the way

It is no surprise that Egypt was chosen to host the Agency’s headquarters given its leadership in the industry. In fact, given its success in launching four satellites in 2019, Egypt has announced plans to build a constellation of satellites to serve numerous security and developments needs within the country’s borders. The Egyptian Space Agency is also looking to grow the country’s capabilities in climate change, space weather and space debris mitigation. To this end, the Agency suggests collaborating with foreign allies who have the adequate skills and expertise in these fields.

Egypt had announced earlier the development of a world-class satellite assembly, integration and testing facility (AIT) and ground station facilities with the support of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). MisrSat-II will help Egypt achieve its development plans in many areas, according to Ahmed al-Rafie, the project leader. He also said that Egyptian and Chinese engineers will collaborate on the development of the satellite project and the construction of the Egyptian assembly, integration and test center.

“The design phases will run in parallel in Egypt and China, but the assembly and integration of the satellite will be done in the Egyptian Center for assembly, testing and integration of satellites. This will provide Egypt with experience in the development of satellite space systems,” he said.

The construction of the MisrSat-II will take up to 35 months for a lifetime in the space of five years.

According to Liao Liqiang, Chinese ambassador to Egypt, Egypt will be the first African country to have complete capabilities of assembly, testing and integration of satellites at the end of the MisrSat-II project. He will also be the first to have achieved a space cooperation with China under the “Belt and Road” Initiative.

Last year, Egypt sent a mini-satellite to the International Space Station. The CubeSat project was designed, built and tested in Egypt.

Dr. Mohamed ElKoosy, the Egypt Space Agency CEO, says Egypt plans another two satellites in the next three years, and plans to build a NGEO constellation similar to the Starlink project in the coming years. SpaceX signed a deal in January with Egyptian operator NileSat to launch a four-ton satellite in 2022 to support communications. In fact, SpaceX and NileSat signed a contract in Cairo, Egypt, for the launch of the hefty NileSat-301 geostationary communications satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX officials said in an announcement. NileSat-301 will support NileSat's Ku-band communications and digital broadcasting services, specifically in two new, large regions in Africa. The addition of this new satellite will also provide Ka-band connectivity for all of Egypt. 

Ethiopia launches its first satellite

In December 2019, Ethiopia launched its first satellite in China which was considered a historic milestone for the country. The data provided by the Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite (ETRSS) will improve knowledge on agricultural resources, forests and mineral resources and response to natural disasters.

The head of the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI) at Addis Ababa University noted that the Chinese satellite was designed and built at a cost of $8 million, with China paying around $6 million of the capsule’s price. Though it was launched from China, its command and control center is based at the Entoto Observatory and Space Science Research Center (EORC) in Ethiopia, which is part of the Ethiopian Space, Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI).

Nigeria attracts satellite operators

In January, the National Communications Commission (NCC) of Nigeria announced that it has granted 55 new satellite telecommunications services licenses to the following enterprises:  Eutelsat, Intelsat, OneWeb, Yahsat, Immarsat, NSS Licensee B.V and Avanti.

Satellites are proven to be the adequate solution to reach underserved areas, especially in a country with a population of more than 205 million people and where the number of subscription to telecom services reached more than 180 million with the majority having two or three SIM cards.

This high number of new licenses highlights competition in the Nigerian telecom market and that major telecom groups such as MTN, Airtel, Globacom, 9mobile and Visafone are not interested by mobile connectivity only.

Moreover, last month California-based company Viasat discussed plans to get the NCC’s support to enter the commercial satellite communication market in Nigeria. Viasat has requested approval to reserve and use the 28 GHz KA frequency band in the country to offer efficient and high throughput satellite connectivity through its subsidiary Viasat Nigeria.

The company informed the NCC as well that it plans to conduct a proof of concept test in Abuja in 2020 and then rollout the service in a community before extending it to the whole territory by 2022.

According to the relevant provisions of the Nigerian Communications Act (NCA), 2003, the NCC in 2019, regularized the activities of all commercial satellite operators including space station operators and earth station operators. In addition, it issued permits to space stations beaming signals over Nigerian territory.

Rwanda launches RWASAT-1

RWASAT-1, Rwanda’s first satellite, was launched in October 2019 along with Egypt’s NARSScube-1 aboard the Kounotori-9, known as HTV-8. RWASAT-1 aims to collect and forward data to remote monitoring stations on the ground and carries two cameras for earth observation.

On another hand, Rwanda collaborated with OneWeb, an international telecommunications giant, for the launch of the global satellite named ‘Icyerekezo’ by student from St Pierre Nkombo island Rusizi district who aspire to be connected on an integral part of the high speed satellite global broadband network. The objective is to bridge the digital divide in rural schools in Rwanda.

“Connecting remote schools to bridge the digital divide that still impacts half the population of the world is at the heart of OneWeb's vision. We are delighted to partner with the Rwandan Government and particularly the students of Nkombo. The connectivity we can provide them will allow them to realize their dreams and allow Rwanda to become a hub for technological innovation,” OneWeb said.

Rwanda's Minister of Education, Dr. Eugene Mutimura, said, “Connecting schools is a foundational aspect and driver of transformative learning. Rwanda's ICT in education Master Plan outlines ambitions of interventions to connect schools and empower Rwandan children with immense opportunity, notably research, support our competence based learning, ease to access and share digital content, support systems to monitor and evaluate process among others.”

The satellites industry has a major role to play in the telecommunications industry. Satellites can reach places no other network coverage can reach which is where its importance lies. Africa is on the right path here. It is investing in this industry for the benefit of its population and businesses. Even with the advent of 5G networks, satellites will remain the most important driver of communication. It might be a while before 5G reaches every corner of the world, but satellites already exist everywhere. With the right investments and projects, Africa can lead the way.

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