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How Africa can tap into SpaceX’s Starlink satellites

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 28 May 2019
A view of SpaceX's first 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, still in stacked configuration, on 23 May 2019. (Source: SpaceX)
A view of SpaceX's first 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, still in stacked configuration, on 23 May 2019. (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s 60 Starlink satellites will help meet the ever-growing demand for trusted broadband services in Africa.

This is according to wireless and satellite solutions provider Q-Kon, following the launch of the satellites last week.

On Thursday, 23 May at 10:30pm EDT, SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

SpaceX says Starlink is a next-generation satellite network capable of connecting the globe, especially reaching those who are not yet connected, with reliable and affordable broadband Internet services.

SpaceX designed Starlink to connect end-users with low latency, high bandwidth broadband services by providing continual coverage around the world using a network of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.

To manufacture and launch a constellation of such scale, SpaceX used the same rapid iteration in design approach that led to the successes of Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon.

As such, Starlink’s simplified design is significantly more scalable and capable than its first experimental iteration, says SpaceX.

With a flat-panel design featuring multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array, each Starlink satellite weighs approximately 227kg, allowing SpaceX to maximise mass production and take full advantage of Falcon 9’s launch capabilities.

To adjust position on orbit, maintain intended altitude, and deorbit, Starlink satellites feature Hall thrusters powered by krypton. Designed and built upon the heritage of Dragon, each spacecraft is equipped with a star tracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision.

Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding collision. Additionally, SpaceX says 95% of all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of each satellite’s lifecycle – exceeding all current safety standards – with future iterative designs moving to complete disintegration.

Remote regions

Satellites are increasingly being used to provide highly-reliable broadband Internet connectivity beyond major cities and in geographically remote regions of the African continent.

Vox Telecom says while a lot of attention is paid to the spread of fibre and LTE infrastructure, these are limited to cities and surrounding urban areas, with rural areas unlikely to benefit from these technologies for years to come; and satellite connectivity will often be the only option available.

It points out that satellite is also ideal in areas where existing connectivity is too slow, or has long install lead times.

Q-Kon points out SpaceX successfully launched the first 60 satellites of the planned 12 000 low orbit satellite constellation as the start of South African-born Elon Musk’s audacious 10-year $10 billion broadband space programme.

“SpaceX just took a giant leap toward making global Internet coverage a reality as its fifth Falcon 9 rocket of the year took flight on Thursday evening, sending 60 Internet-beaming satellites into space,” the company says.

Known as StarLink, the satellite constellation is part of a new generation of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite space communication network solutions, it notes, adding that a constellation of LEO satellites includes thousands of small satellites that provides continuous, global coverage as the satellites move.

Unlike GEO satellites, LEO satellites also fly at a much faster pace because of their proximity to Earth, says Q-Kon.

The satellites will communicate through four inter-satellite laser links forming a communication channel in space which is then linked back to Earth ground communication stations.

According to Q-Kon, using shortest path computational simulations shows that a New York-to-London link will have a round-trip latency of 46msec versus the current undersea cable networks of 76msec.

On the costs, the company says so far very little factual information could be sourced on the planned broadband service profiles, the pricing models and other critical end-user go-to-market metrics.

“Working with the total project cost of $10 billion and with a Federal Communications Commission filing information by SpaceX Services, a SpaceX sister company, to license one million end-user terminal equipment, we can estimate some service metrics.

“Adding to this the current North America competitive landscape from HughesNet, Viasat and Dish with typical user rates of between $70 and $200 per month, then SpaceX Services will have to connect the one million users at an average rate of $109 over a 10-year period to balance the project business case.”

Service availability

As to if this will work in Africa, Q-Kon says technically yes. Once the satellite is launched, it will work in Africa, and anywhere else in the globe.

“The more difficult question is: ‘Will I be able to buy this service in Africa?’ It is too early to say if the service will be commercially available in South Africa and Africa. What we can discuss is what will be required to ensure service availability and continued market delivery.”

It explains the SpaceX StarLink service will require installation of a fixed two-way communication dish and terminal at each user location, similar to a DStv installation.

“This means possible future service providers of the StarLink service must have the capability to install thousands of specialist terminals at end-user locations throughout the service region. Next, the service provisioning, ongoing quality-of-service requirements, network operation, etc, require a specific niche engineering skills set which is not currently part of the general service providers’ technical environments.”

Q-Kon notes that initially the probable target market will mostly be “off-grid” locations, meaning users at locations which are “off-the-telco-grids” and not connected to the 3G mobile networks or fibre networks.

These are the niche market sectors and will furthermore require specific focused marketing campaigns and target sales teams, it notes, adding the incumbent mobile operators and national telcos are not currently structured to deal with such a niche service and business set of requirements.

“To answer the question: ‘Will this be available in Africa?’ We must consider the business attractiveness of this special niche service and if any of the telcos will indeed adopt this as a go-to-market product.

“At an average end-user price of R1 500 for the service, and based on an estimation of 100 000 terminals (10% of the base), the potential annual revenue income for a telco will be R150 million. Putting this in context, this will be about 0.2% of Vodacom’s 2019 revenue.

“For the big telcos, this will probably not be considered attractive enough to invest the resources required for such a specialised satellite service product.”

However, Q-Kon says given the expected technical speed and latency performance advantages of the SpaceX StarLink service, the benefits to connect all “off-grid” users as well as providing a high-reliable, easy to deploy fibre-alternative service, SpaceX Starlink does build a compelling case that Africa can’t ignore.

“It can, thus, be expected that a new generation of highly-focused, niche satellite service providers will target this opportunity. For providers such as the Q-Kon group, this will be a logical next step in meeting the ever-growing demand for trusted broadband services in Africa.”