Building Africa’s Satellite Infrastructure | Media Capacity

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You may have heard how Liquid Intelligent Technologies, the pan-African telecommunications company, is driving technological and infrastructural innovation across the continent. But its satellite division, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services, also deserves attention. Its recent announcements include a new strategic partnership with Telesat to bring Telesat Lightspeed Low Earth Orbit satellite services to Africa, new extended capacity agreements for Eutelsat’s EUTELSAT 7B satellite and an extended partnership agreement with Intelsat for network coverage. extent.

Scott Mumford, CEO of Liquid Telecom Satellite Services, highlights the challenges and opportunities that exist in emerging markets in today’s satellite industry, and where satellite fits within the broader Liquid family.

“Until 15 years ago, satellite was the communication method for everything in Africa because there were no terrestrial networks,” he says. “There were no mobile networks, and the undersea cables weren’t there, so the satellite was the underlying technological infrastructure that provided all international communications, in and out. of Africa.”

Mumford says he has seen this change over the past 10 to 15 years, a transition that began with the deployment of greater undersea cable and fiber infrastructure across the continent, which has seen “speeds increase and prices go down.”

“The understanding then was that satellite was a legacy technology that was slow and expensive because there was this shiny new capability that came into the network,” he says.

But as we know, satellite technology has not ceased to develop, continued to evolve and kept pace from a technological point of view. So it fell to companies like Liquid Telecom Satellite Services to bang its drum and explain to people why satellite is as good as cable, to eliminate the stigma of being slow and expensive.

“We’ve moved the infrastructure to the continent rather than being owned internationally,” says Mumford. “The traffic does not leave Africa, it remains local. It is directly connected to data centers. It is directly connected to the core networks. It is experiencing a resurgence.

Electricity supply

Operating in emerging markets comes with its own set of challenges, the main one being the power supply and its effects on the communications infrastructure, primarily terminal equipment and other passive materials.

Take the example of South Africa. It is one of the most developed economies on the African continent, but Eskom, the country’s public electricity supplier, has implemented scheduled blackouts due to the failure of its aging electricity infrastructure. This leads to capacity drops on mobile networks, outages on fiber routes and power surges causing problems.

“It certainly has a wider impact than just the power side,” says Mumford. “One of the key things that I think is really important from a satellite perspective is that the terminal equipment is very low powered and able to maintain its speeds because it’s not reliant on having to transit through areas that can be turned off or have power outages, giving it a unique advantage and opportunity.

Conversations about the role of satellite providers within the broader telecommunications ecosystem are ongoing, with some seeing them as distributors or extensions of traditional networks, and others seeing them as competitors in the space. . Mumford disagrees with the latter.

“[Satellite is] certainly not a competitor,” he says. “If you look at data consumption, it’s mostly driven by internet access. The migration to app-based living is one-sided across the world and in all economies. »

Given that Africa is massively underserved – internet penetration rates on the continent are around 35% – satellite has a vital role to play.

“It’s not in competition with terrestrial networks because there’s a lot of investment going into it. [terrestrial], especially because a lot of those apps we mentioned are on cellphones, tablets, and devices,” he says. “Satellite plays a complementary role, in that it enables connectivity in regions where this trusted infrastructure has not yet been built. It also adds an extra layer of resilience to the network.

In line with a complementary approach to networking, the relationship between traditional telecom operators and satellite companies has also moved from one where each was somewhat isolated to one where they are increasingly integrated.

“Things have always been very siloed, and in many cases they still are,” Mumford says. “It’s also a very specialized area of ​​expertise and skills. But I think the satellite industry as a whole has done a lot to demystify itself and break down those barriers from a telecommunications perspective.

As managed services and anything Internet-enabled become ubiquitous, Mumford believes that having a “single-service architecture across multiple technologies and allowing telcos to easily access them, without having to invest heavily in an infrastructure” brings the relationship between satellite and telecom operators even closer.

“It’s really open [telcos’] mind to understand the benefits [satellite] can take them, in terms of getting services to places where they could never provide services before,” adds Mumford.

Myth of security

One such managed service is network security, and despite the inherently secure nature of satellite technology, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services is not exempt from one of wireless technology’s biggest lies: the simple hacking a radio frequency signal provides access to the network.

“Most satellite systems operate on a time division multiple access system, which means the frequency changes approximately every quarter of a second, which you need to be able to access. There’s also the underlying intellectual property and cybersecurity that drives this,” says Mumford.

As a partner of Microsoft and AWS, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services has access to the cybersecurity elements that accompany these agreements. It also works with companies like Cloudfare and Arbor that provide cybersecurity on the backend and network security element.

“Generally speaking, satellites have been proven to be extremely secure,” says Mumford, “and we apply all of these biases by default, whether it’s at the hardware layer, a satellite RF layer, or ‘one layer of cloud IP cybersecurity’.

At the software level, the growing softwarisation of everything is also permeating the satellite sector.

“Just look at the companies that have entered the satellite environment over the past five years,” says Mumford. “There is Microsoft with its Azure Orbital and its Azure Space. Amazon is coming in with its low Earth orbit constellation, Kuiper, and they’re heading to a software-defined, virtualized platform. SpaceX, with the way it works with Starlink, is the same.

According to Mumford, Liquid is already in talks with several satellite infrastructure virtualization companies with the goal of deploying several initial deployments, “where we tie satellite hardware virtualization to our SDN platforms that enable set-up and tear-down services orchestrated based on a web portal access or service orchestrator tied to the terrestrial SDN platform”.

The next generation of geostationary satellites are all software-defined, says Mumford, where “on-board system processing adjusts how the satellite processes data, where it moves the signal based on algorithms similar to SDN on a terrestrial network.” .

Outside of virtualization, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile applications are some of the most talked about use cases for satellite technology.

“There is a lot of talk around direct-to-mobile satellite communications with a lot of money being invested in these, although they are still in the development and experimental phase,” says Mumford.

According to Liquid’s latest survey, satellite operators have moved to using 3GPP standards and are working on 5G standards to ensure that satellite is included in this standardization at all levels.

But while it is an enabler of mobile communications and a key aspect of where businesses are headed, it is not the most important element in terms of developing satellite infrastructure. .

“The other part is low-latency, high-bandwidth global coverage of the low-Earth orbit constellation, as well as developments for global maritime and mobility in-flight communication networks,” says Mumford. “That’s where the whole development of satellites is at this stage.”

A busy future

Mumford says Liquid Telecom Satellite Services has “numerous projects” underway. The first is the previously mentioned implementation of a virtualized platform.

“We will soon be meeting with the vendor around our initial deployment of our first satellite ground system and its test implementation. We’re aiming to try and bring this to market early next year,” says Mumford. “This will be one of the first fully virtualized deployments in the world, but it will certainly be the first in Africa.”

At the same time, the division is hard at work building infrastructure, specifically “a new teleport that we are planning in Nigeria.”

Another exciting project will see the group launch the first 100% Service Level Agreement (SLA) availability service in Africa, where it will provide terrestrial and satellite service and multi-orbit satellite service to the enterprise market which has a 100% uptime guarantee.

Other than that, Liquid Telecom Satellite Services aims to keep pace with requests for new service activations while continuing to grow in the countries where it currently provides services.

“At the end of the day, we are very happy to hold the torch to make satellite a vital part of the future of communications in Africa,” Mumford said.

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