Connecting the unconnected with satellite

A consensus has been reached among key players in the satellite industry; future growth is dependent on operating and terminal equipment costs coming down and performance going up. With 4 billion people still underserved across the globe, the satellite industry needs to resolve how it can best position itself to provide this connectivity, beating the competition from alternative technologies and emerging tech giants moving into the space.

“Without internet access, you can’t have proper healthcare or education let alone a thriving business community. The statistics are overwhelming. With good broadband speed economies do much better,” says David McCourt, CEO of Granahan McCourt Capital.

But the economics need to work in order for the VSAT market to be sustainable and at the same time profitable. At a recent VSAT Global panel discussion ‘Connecting the Unconnected: The role of satellite connectivity in remote areas’, speakers maintained that an integrated model that served customer, enterprise and telco segments would need to be found in order to propel the industry towards a brighter future.

“The way to crack consumer connectivity will be to work together with a single objective in mind. It’s about finding harmony across the satellite industry to make connection happen” stated Amit Somani, Chief Strategy Officer at Yahsat.

VSAT providers trying to get ahead of the game currently have all eyes on Africa where internet penetration is far behind the global average, recorded at just 20% in 2015. But with mobile penetration on the continent already at 67%, how far can VSAT go to providing the remaining population with connectivity?

“Those able to take advantage of this [mobile penetration] through WIFI will connect Africa. This could be VSAT in conjunction with a mobile operator perhaps’, suggested Job Ndege of Protocol Solutions Limited. Ndege maintained that with the average African living on under $1 per day, a solution that cost between $3 – $7 a month would need to be found in order for consumers to be willing to pay.

Even if providers were able to find a solution that benefited all stakeholders, high installation and maintenance costs of VSAT presents another challenge to achieving global connectivity. It’s all about coming up with models that convince governments that VSAT is a sustainable solution, explains Job Ndege.

“Most government policy makers see satellite as expensive… As operators, we need to come up with models to convince them that VSAT is sustainable, or for the period of time required that their money is spent well. There’s a disconnect between policy makers and governments.”

Public-private partnerships may be the way forward here, as was suggested by McCourt in the panel discussion. Examples of this happening in practice? Enet’s work in conjunction with the Irish National Broadband Plan – providing high-speed broadband across this relatively underserved country over the next five years.

It’s clear there’s a case for VSAT being able to connect the unconnected, evident by the fact leading provider Hughes has over one million subscribers on their broadband platform. How can success be rolled out across the industry? It was conceded by speakers at VSAT Global that a change in business plan, an open approach to collaboration and a focus on lowering maintenance costs would be necessary to enable satellite to take the unconnected into the connected world.

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