VSAT demand in Africa grows despite fibre optic threat

KAMPALA, UGANDA – At an evening cocktail party in Kampala last week, Afsat Communications general manager and technology guru Job Ndege took a group of journalists through the pros and cons of two competing technologies for Internet connectivity.

The technologies — VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal), a satellite-based technology, and fibre optics (terrestrial and undersea) — are set for battle, and Ndege’s presentation defined the impending fight for territory when fibre optics lands in East Africa sometime in 2009.

“VSAT technology is gaining prominence in Africa in spite of the general opinion that fibre optic networks are the panacea to bringing down the soaring Internet connectivity rates that have hindered the penetration of these services in most African countries,” Ndege said.

Since the idea of constructing an undersea cable to complete the fibre optics loop around Africa was mooted, the promoters of fibre optics have branded satellite technology as expensive and limiting to connectivity.

While that might not be entirely wrong, Ndege said VSAT is becoming more popular due to its maturity, reliability and efficiency, having supported Internet and telecommunication service providers since 1989. He said that apart from the colossal cost of installing fibre optic networks and the high risk of the lines being cut and damaged, there is a lack of motivation to invest in this technology due to the small user base, especially in Africa.

“Fibre optic cables in Africa are predominantly being used for backbone or backhaul and not for last-mile solutions,” he said. In contrast, he explained that VSAT beats the last-mile problem by connecting a customer’s network directly to the Internet on a single hop, unlike most technologies, which rely on others for Internet connectivity.

“VSAT technology is time-tested and can be activated much more quickly than terrestrial networks,” Ndege said.

He explained that VSAT offers greater reliability by linking to an Internet backbone, bypassing congested terrestrial lines, exchanges and numerous interconnections, thus reducing the potential points of failure.

According to Ndege, the challenge that is facing Internet users in Africa today is the high cost of connectivity associated with international backbone or gateway links delivered through fibre optics or satellite.

“The cost of these links is very high, which poses a great barrier for African countries to participate in international trade.” According to Ndege, advantages of fibre optic networks are that they have higher capacity, can be used over great distances, have high bandwidth properties, are not prone to electromagnetic interference and can be laid next to power-distribution cables. Disadvantages include the fact that fibre optics are expensive and difficult to install as a last-mile solution, and the cables are more fragile than wire, requiring highly specialized and expensive tools.

Outlining the future of VSAT, Ndege said that in spite of the U.S.’s and Europe’s extensive use of fibre and cable, VSAT has continued to grow tremendously with Hughes, a U.S. company that installs more than 11,000 new VSAT sites a month.

“We believe that fibre penetration will be limited at terrestrial backhaul and backbone and metro levels due to prohibitive costs,” Ndege said.

Afsat holds public data communication licenses in Tanzania and Uganda and also has a commercial VSAT network operator license in Kenya. The Internet service provider currently has more than 5,000 VSATs on the broadband platform and more than 200 VSATs on the intra-corporate platform.

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