African Bandwidth Drought Showing Signs of Reversal

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LONDON — A three-year shortage of C-band satellite capacity in Africa that has resulted in bandwidth being sold at once-inconceivable prices of $6,000 per megahertz per month and higher looks to be coming to an end as massive new satellite capacity is readied for service over the continent, according to African satellite network providers.

Coupled with the expected arrival on the African coasts of mega-capacity cable lines, the new satellites are expected to transform a seller’s market into one where buyers may pick and choose their service providers, these companies forecast.

“The business is challenging as the satellite operators are short of capacity. In our case, we have completely run out of capacity,” said Jacques Rautenbach, general manager for Africa and the Middle East for Internet Solutions of South Africa, which runs a 2,600-site network of satellite stations for corporate communications links. “We have none left, and so we have been forced to look at alternatives.”

In a Sept. 17 address to the VSAT 2009 conference here organized by Comsys, a telecommunications consultancy, Rautenbach and other African regional telecommunications providers said they are making the best of a bad situation. Maximizing use of data-compression techniques, coaxing capacity out of less-expensive satellites in inclined orbit, and stitching together hybrid satellite-cable networks are some of the ways to get around the current shortage.

Also helping to alleviate the situation is the growing acceptance in Africa of Ku-band, which has been slow to catch on because of worries about its performance in heavy rain.

“In Africa, until recently Ku-band was almost a swear word,” said Guy Schmuel, chief technical officer of STL Ghana. “Now, slowly, we are getting there, and we are being helped by the C-band shortage.”

Rautenbach said he often competes with another division of his own company that sells cable capacity, and that he sees the new cables being laid along Africa’s coast as a new competitive threat, but only for certain regions.

“There is a huge amount of cable being prepared for Africa, and Indian and Chinese companies are coming into the African market with unbelievably aggressive prices” for some cable links, he said. “But cables only come to the coast. To extend service to a customer’s doorstep is very expensive, so I still see a big future for satellite technology in Africa.”

Internet Solutions generates an average of $1,300 per month for each of its corporate VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, satellite sites, which are located in 12 nations in Africa. Satellite capacity that cost between $2,800 and $3,500 per megahertz per month several years ago now is snapped up immediately even at $6,000 per megahertz per month.

Bermuda- and Washington-based Intelsat, which already provides African coverage aboard 27 of its satellites, is expanding there with its New Dawn satellite to be launched in late 2010 and stationed at 33 degrees east.

Intelsat officials say they have already booked $400 million in backlog for the satellite, including a 15-year contract from cellular-network provider Vodacom for cellular backhaul.

George Giagtzoglou, Intelsat vice president of corporate strategy, said Intelsat views government services, including programs to connect rural communities to the telecommunications grid, along with cellular backhaul as near-term growth markets in Africa. In a Sept. 7 address to World Satellite Business Week in Paris, organized by Euroconsult, Giagtzoglou agreed that while the cable capacity arriving in Africa is huge, satellites will remain viable by focusing on mobility-related applications.

Christophe De Hauwer, vice president of market development at SES of Luxembourg, said the total amount of C- and Ku-band capacity serving Africa and the Middle East is expected to increase by 47 percent, to some 500 transponder equivalents, between now and 2016. The figures do not include Ka-band capacity planned for the region. SES’s next satellite, NSS-12, is scheduled for launch in late October and will be part of this new Africa-focused capacity.

“Are we on the verge of a period of oversupply? We don’t believe so,” De Hauwer said during the Paris conference.

Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris also is expanding in Africa and the Middle East. The company forecasts that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, satellite capacity demand will increase from 281 transponders in 2008 to 419 in 2016, for a compound annual growth rate of 5.2 percent, according to Marco Altobelli, Eutelsat’s marketing director.