Hardly: until very recently, vast areas of Africa and Asia remained unconnected to the internet due to rugged and inaccessible terrain. Paul Godfrey spoke to an entrepreneur determined to realise the dream of a fully-connected globe…
Libya’s dramatic return to the headlines in May 2019 wasn’t the result of factional disturbance or the breakdown of an uneasy militia truce. Rather, atrocious floods in the country’s south-west – amongst the most severe the region had ever seen – were wreaking devastation throughout the local capital, Ghat, forcing 2,500 to leave their homes. The region’s only hospital was entirely flooded, with main roads completely blocked – leaving the UN to estimate that 20,000 people were in urgent need of humanitarian support. Yet one factor enabled aid to get through to the worst-hit areas and allowed relief workers to deliver a measure of damage control: the area’s digital connectivity remained unaffected, courtesy of the Regional African Satellite Communication Organisation (RASCOM) – the only provider covering the whole of the African continent, and a business cutting its teeth on providing connectivity across some of the world’s most rugged and impenetrable terrain.
The story of a ‘People’s Provider’
Imagine this: the sense of empowerment when suddenly, an individual with a mobile phone in one of the most remote places on earth, instantly has the ability to reach seven billion users worldwide…
Providing that ‘universal’ voice is RASCOM’s mission. It’s a simple yet audacious quest that began with a goal of providing total-coverage C-band and GSM connectivity in Africa. The roll-out was courtesy of RascomStar-QAF, a private company registered in Mauritius – and headquartered in Dubai – with the remit to implement RASCOM’s first 14 satellite projects.
After an initial foray into satellite placement in 2007, three years later RascomStar became the world’s first Pan African satellite operator, launching the satellite RQ1-R in 2010, covering the whole African continent as well as parts of Europe and the Middle East. Based on the Spacebus 4000 B3 platform, and with a life expectancy of 18 years, the satellite is fitted with twelve Ku-band and eight C-band transponders and provides services to Telecom Operators, large corporations, and TV broadcasters.
While still a unique grass-roots provider, the company’s services have evolved to offer a wide portfolio, with integrated solutions including, for example, DTH services for TV broadcast in Ku, VSAT in C and Ku for private VPNs or Internet (with live customers in 30 countries), WiFi access and Hybrid VSAT and GSM solutions.
Driving the changes
Broadcast Pro spoke to RascomStar’s Managing Director, Sherif Azzabi, responsible for driving the company’s noble – but highly challenging – agenda:
“When we began in 2003, our idea was unique. We wanted to help Africa; we wanted to provide communication in rural areas where there was no coverage at all. The major operators are obliged to provide coverage, but the challenges are immense – to such an extent that we see operators who would sooner pay the fines and penalties imposed for not offering a service than actually go into those areas and provide connectivity.
“People simply don’t appreciate the difficulties of offering connectivity in remote areas. We are talking about regions where the nearest town or village – where families have to go to buy their household essentials – is four days away. That means an eight to ten day round trip – but when you have connectivity, you can simply make a call and have those goods delivered. Plus, it’s not just the time involved: the terrain can be extremely inhospitable, and people generally won’t have any means of transport available for carrying those goods – there are countless pictures of villagers balancing heavy goods on their heads, for example.
“So, our first goal is to extend GSM services or Fixed Telephony over satellite in rural areas where traditional fiber or microwave solutions are not economically feasible, or sustainable. You have to remember that in these areas, it’s often impossible to lay cable; you face an enormous range of landscapes and every type of geographical challenge. We work with 45 African nations – and that means that we see every extreme of service challenge. But once connectivity is in place, it can make a huge social impact in the towns and villages and we always try to keep that original mission in mind.”
The harsh realities
On the one hand, RASCOM can be dealing with highly sophisticated infrastructure connectivity in cities like Kinshasa and Abuja, and then providing coverage to the hinterlands of Mali or Chad, with their age-old communities such as Timbuktu – for centuries, a metaphor for ‘the ends of the earth’. Indeed, these are areas which, according to UNESCO’s Human Development Index (HDI) are rated amongst the bottom 20 in the world in terms of standards of living and access to basic utilities and resources.
These environments pose massive challenges when it comes to creating a functioning communications infrastructure. An excerpt from a RascomStar training manual – ‘Field experience in DRC’ – paints a grim but compelling picture:
“While some conditions might be tolerable others are more difficult, such as sleeping outdoors under tents, or in a mud hut with unbearable and annoying insects like mosquitoes. There can be extremely hot or wet climatic conditions, using long-drop toilets, bucket shower baths with dirty running water and only being able to use a candle in the dark.
“During field installations, operations and maintenance, work usually starts at 7:00am and can run until 11:00pm depending on the type of activity – which can be very complex in the case of troubleshooting. Don’t ever think a simple screw-driver or an Ethernet cable can be found locally. Don’t ever think, too, that you can charge your electronic devices: bring your own generator (and your fuel) until the solar panels are mounted and operational!”
When it comes to handling these realities, Sherif comments that: “we sell end-to-end managed services, including the ground equipment and stations, so that we can be absolutely certain of providing coverage, no matter what the level of isolation. Our integrated rural solutions are developed by Viasat exclusively for Rascomstar – and we deliver a full telecom solution while partnering with local tower companies for solar power and towers.”
These initatives mean that even the smallest towns and villages can become part of the global community – and have access to that most treasured resource: the Internet. For example, RascomStar has developed a managed service for rural WiFi Internet via satellite – villagers can access the Internet by simply logging on to the nearest WiFi hotspot connected by VSAT. This can mean an extraordinary transformation in their ability to interact with the world at large, whether that means accessing information about education or farming techniques, or simply catching up on Facebook with people in a town 50km away.
“We actually started the business in Libya – and in the same way as many of the north-African providers we were originally government-funded”, says Sherif. “But the revolution and the subsequently unsettled climate changed everything. It led to us broadening our footprint – and we first piloted our service in three villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, expanding later to an eight-city pilot in the towns of Panu, Kalo, Bogoro, Yumbi, Tsumbiri, Kwamouth, Nkolo, and Bolobo.
“We began by offering a simple GSM connection: the remote terminals were designed to be completely off-grid with solar power operation and Pay As You Go satellite backhaul connectivity. For clients, this literally involves minute-by-minute billing – and it enables GSM operators to have ease of deployment with low OPEX operational and maintenance costs.
“Today, we are a truly international business, with teleport hubs in Alicante, Spain; Guildford, England; and Douala, Cameroon – in addition to a TV provider in Luxembourg. Given that we have a satellite position of 2.9 east, we are able to cover the whole of Africa – and also parts of Europe – on a single beam. This means that we can deliver on our remit of providing connectivity to literally every part of the African continent. Since we also have a heavy use of satellite in the north, we are very well-placed to target the telcos, hotel groups, banks and the enterprise sector generally.
“We are based here in Dubai: an in-depth report by KPMG showed it to be the location of choice, given that there are direct flights to most African countries and all of the companies who are our suppliers have offices here.”
Finding the solution
“In Africa”, says Sherif, “funding is the biggest problem. It’s unreasonable to expect any sudden changes in general levels of infrastructure, because of the very high costs involved. But what we can do is to provide access to connectivity that makes a real difference to the way people live and the kind of opportunites that they can be made aware of. That can be something as basic as being able to receive an SMS when a money transfer has arrived – a simple facility that affects tens of millions of people – and being able to make that money transfer online, rather than travel days to an exchange bureau. Or it might mean being able to keep in touch with loved ones on the other side of the country. Whatever it is, we believe in finding the solution.”
English business council original article.