By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day

Satellite is becoming an increasingly viable contender as a broadband communication technology and its global footprint extends way beyond that of any other. Estimates of the number of man-made satellites operating within Earth’s orbit vary from 2100 to 3,000, and some 50 are positioned over Africa, providing almost 100% coverage.

Satellite has been a key communication solution for many years in Africa, mainly for television broadcast and connectivity from the continent to Europe and beyond. It has filled the void in areas where fixed line and mobile communication is lacking, it is used for alternative routing, mobile operators use it for their backhaul transmission networks, and it is becoming an increasingly viable option for broadband connectivity.

Today consumers want to watch movies, make Voice over IP phone calls, and browse the internet, all at the same time, and the latest satellite technology supports this, says Soheil Mehrabanzad, assistant vice president for Middle East and Africa at Hughes Network Systems. “Good quality video conferencing is viable over 384 kilobits per second (kbps) bandwidth using satellite broadband.”

Advances in technology and compression techniques have helped to boost satellite throughput speeds from a maximum of 768 Kbps five years ago to up to 9 megabits per second today on the user’s inbound channel. The next generation higher throughput satellites, which incorporate spot-beam technology and operate in the higher frequency Ka-band spectrum, have been seen to provide up to 15 Mbps inbound user throughput and allow the use of smaller satellite receiver dishes.

“We have a Ka-band satellite, Spaceway 3, positioned over North America and will be launching another one, Jupiter, in North America in 2012,” says Mehrabanzad. He says Hughes is  also supplying its high-performance Ka-band broadband satellite system and terminals for the ground segment of the Yahsat 1B satellite, which is scheduled to be launched towards the end of 2011 and will be positioned over Africa.

Jonathan Osler, MD for Africa sales at Intelsat says the opening up of the Ka-band spectrum will provide more capacity for new satellite operators to file for rights to operate on this frequency. Intelsat currently has 54 satellites in the sky globally, and 22 of these are positioned over Africa.

“The latest of these is the New Dawn satellite, which we launched last month and we will be launching four more by mid-2012,” he says. New Dawn is a joint venture between Intelsat and the Convergence Partners consortium and is 90% funded from African sources.

The satellite operates on the C-band and Ku-band spectrum and is optimised to deliver wireless backhaul, broadband and media content. Dawie de Wet, CEO of Q-Kon, says satellite is often the only option for long distance and last mile connectivity in areas where other services do not reach or are inadequate or, in the case of the South African market, if a fixed line connection is down due to copper theft.

“Even in the US, satellite broadband is often used on the fringes of metropolitan areas where the fibre, ADSL or 3G infrastructure is lacking,” says de Wet. A satellite connection can be up and running in 48 hours, and there is coverage everywhere.

He says the 445,000 registered small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that exist in SA are a good target market for a broadband satellite service, which costs about R700 a month for a 4 Mbps download rate and 256 Kbps upload rate, plus a one-time cost of R6,000 for the receiver dish.

Q-Kon recently formed Skyvine, a joint venture with electronic products manufacturer Ellies, to provide satellite broadband services to SMEs and high-end consumers through retailers, satellite TV installers and ISPs.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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