International Push To Bring Broadband to Underserved Congo

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  Space News Business

International Push To Bring Broadband to Underserved Congo

By DEBRA WERNER
Space News Correspondent
posted: 02 December 2008
04:25 pm ET






SAN FRANCISCO
— The Democratic Republic of Congo is joining forces with international communications providers to establish a broadband network to carry educational content for primary school children throughout the capital city
Kinshasa
. This plan, which was agreed upon during
Congo
‘s First Communications Summit Nov. 13, marks the first step in a global effort to bring satellite communications to countries ravaged by war or natural disaster.

“The tougher the operating conditions, the more these countries cry out for communications infrastructure supported, at some level, by satellites,” said David Hartshorn, secretary-general of London-based Global VSAT Forum, a satellite communications industry association. “Terrestrial wireless is going gangbusters in the cities of the developing world. Outside the cities, it is an infrastructure desert.”

As a result, the Global VSAT (very small aperture terminals) Forum is launching a nation-building campaign with plans to hold similar summits in developing nations around the world. Possible locations for future summits include
Angola
,
Iraq
,
Afghanistan
,
Liberia
and
Sierra Leone
, according to Hartshorn. These summits bring together government officials, international communications companies, local service providers and potential broadband users, such as banks and Internet service companies, to discuss development of a communications infrastructure.

In the
Congo
, for example, Louise MungaMesozi, minister of posts and telecommunications, announced plans for market liberalization and regulatory reform to encourage the delivery of satellite, wireless and fiber-based telecommunications throughout the country. “We are launching a comprehensive telecommunications program to improve socio-economic conditions for all people in the nation,” Mesozi said in a statement released Nov. 17. “We call on all communications stakeholders to join us in this important endeavor.”

It was during the communications summit that participants reached an agreement on plans to offer broadband communications for
Kinshasa
‘s schools. Microcom, a wireless Internet service provider in the
Congo
, has agreed to oversee the deployment and operation of the network. The Global VSAT Forum will help certify technicians and offer assistance to all parties involved. A major satellite operator has offered to provide bandwidth for the effort, Hartshorn said. That company declined to be named, however, because they have not yet announced their participation in the program. The remaining task is to find satellite ground station equipment and possibly seed money from an international aid agency to jump-start the project. This project will happen with or without funding from an aid agency. Aid funding simply would speed up the delivery of service, Hartshorn said.

Unlike past communications programs in developing countries that relied heavily on funding from various aid organizations such as the World Bank or the Africa Development Bank, Hartshorn said the
Congo
project and efforts that follow will be designed to pay for themselves. The service envisioned for
Kinshasa
‘s schools will not be free, but its price will be steeply discounted so usage rates would be within reach of the school system.

“We want to facilitate deployment of networks that can run in perpetuity even in a difficult financial climate,” Hartshorn said. “We are right at the juncture where industry is poised to deliver financially viable, operationally sustainable services.”

Companies that seek to offer satellite communications services in countries emerging from war or natural disasters, according to Hartshorn, are not offering charity. “This is a cold, calculated business model,” he said. “We are trying to create markets in countries that heretofore generated little or no revenue for the communications sector. These are almost untouched markets.”

In response to skepticism that these markets are stable enough to offer business opportunities, Hartshorn points to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a common interface that allows mobile phones to work in different countries around the world. “GSM has proven that these markets can be profitable,” Hartshorn said. “Now there are opportunities to provide broadband communications with satellite and wireless networks.”

In the past, the model for deploying satellite communications in developing nations was to install a small satellite terminal near a telecommunications center in a remote place. “That model does not generate enough revenue,” Hartshorn said.

Instead, the Global VSAT Forum’s
Nation
Building
campaign hopes to develop hybrid communications systems encompassing satellite, wireless and broadband technology to offer access to thousands of people. This type of system only becomes economically viable if it serves a large number of customers. Individual users would be able to pay for services with prepaid calling cards while enterprises that rely on the network would pay for monthly subscriptions.