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Intelsat and its plan to connect African schools to the internet

At the most recent Africa Tech Festival, which returned as in-person event in Cape Town, there were two prevailing themes – 5G has landed in Africa, and the need to connect the unconnected on the continent.

While there is indeed a lot of excitement regarding the former, it is likely the latter that is more important for Africa, which still has multiple regions lacking in adequate connectivity.

There are a myriad approaches being taken by different service providers, infrastructure operators and telecommunications companies in tackling connectivity in Africa, with Intelsat being one of them.

One of its more immediate initiatives involves connectivity at schools, with an ambitious target of connecting 100 schools in rural areas by 2025.

To gain a better understanding of how Intelsat is planning to reach that target, the role collaboration will play, as well as what it views as serviceable connectivity in rural areas to be, we spoke with Rhys Morgan, VP and GM of Media and Networks Sales for EMEA at the organisation.

This is the insight he had to share.

Hypertext: Intelsat was one of the key exhibitors here at AfricaCom 2022. What has the company been particularly interested in showcasing to delegates and engaging in conversation with on the customer/partner side of the business?

Rhys Morgan: We have spoken quite a lot this year around the investment we are making in our next-generation software-defined network, which is several billion dollars worth of investment.

That will be a new terrestrial network, and a new fleet of satellites that offer a great deal of power and flexibility, allowing Intelsat to potentially open new markets for satellite communications. We have definitely been talking about that for much of the year.

Another exciting, albeit a little smaller announcement, is a partnership to develop and manufacture a satellite that is made mainly of 3D printed parts. So we are looking at different ways of delivering solutions.

We are also looking to deliver more capability, and in some other instances, greater simplicity. It’s always about getting the right economics, and the right use case to benefit the end customer.

What I have seen, perhaps more than at previous AfricaCom events, is the use and application of connectivity in meaningful ways. Five years ago it was about creating the connectivity, but now it is about ‘what can I do with it’.

An example of this would be mobile banking, which has seen tremendous growth across the continent. Businesses are looking to expand the range of connectivity, in order to enable the reach of solutions like M-PESA.

There has been a significant uptick in wanting value-add from connectivity, as customer demands become more mature and sophisticated.

Hypertext: Intelsat has been ramping up its engagement on the African continent. What does the current landscape look like In that regard?

RM: Well I think there is a post-pandemic bounce. People are pleased to be back out on the road, get out and interact again. 

There is also a tremendous amount of infrastructure development, and connectivity enhancements that are underway across the continent. AfricaCom is a real meeting point for people to come together.

We have met some of our major partners here to discuss several large projects aimed at enhancing connectivity, as well as improve security in certain countries across the Western region of Africa.

So there’s a lot of investment and innovation currently being poured into the region.

Hypertext: Then looking at the maturity of connectivity across the continent in comparison to other regions. While Africa is not as far along as others, could we define our maturity as a different type of maturity?

RM: Yes, I think a different type of maturity is an apt description. If I looked at developed economies, the incumbent service provider had copper wire into houses, but Africa has completely skipped that phase.

Here people have gone straight to mobile, and mobile consumption is tremendous, with the proliferation of handsets only increasing.

What we are seeing is that there are huge amounts of connectivity arriving at the coast, which has been ongoing for more than a decade, and now that connectivity is beginning to proliferate inland. But, in certain instances geography means it cannot always reach, so we are playing a role in extending that.

So there is almost a two-speed market, where the suburban is getting extremely sophisticated, and then there is the rural market where there is still a dearth in connectivity. Businesses are working harder than ever now to close that rural connectivity gap.

There are different demands, and they require different solutions. Previously service providers were not necessarily thinking about that, but it’s changed drastically. The one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work anymore.

Hypertext: One of the more interesting developments at Intelsat is the 5G Unified Network it is working on. Are you able to give an update on how that project is proceeding?

RM: Yes, this is the next-generation software-defined network I mentioned earlier, which is a massive investment from our part – upwards of $2 billion in terrestrial and satellite parts. 

And the idea is that this will be built on a 5G core, so that when we connect with a mobile network operator, like MTN, the interoperability will be almost immediate, and devices can move easily from our network to their network.

When you move into an era of more and more devices, that interoperability and device registration becomes important.

Added to this standards and scale. If we are all operating to the same standards, we are easily able to access the scale that many networks have developed through the procurement of infrastructure.

This brings down the cost of the networking for everybody. Where satellite was viewed as being quite complex, we are working to make it far simpler.

Hypertext: Digital inclusion is another key focus for Intelsat. The company is looking to connect 100 schools in rural areas by 2025. What is the progress of that project at this stage? 

RM: The Path To Connect initiative is intended to fast forward the objective, but we also have a broad number of partners, and companies we have invested in to push that connectivity deeper inland. 

There are a lot of different people working to connect the schools, and it is moving ahead, but I think we’d like it to move faster than it is. There are challenges that exist for all of us, whether that be chipset shortages, logistics, lead time on equipment, so there are delays, but I think also we are aware that it could go a lot further.

So we are investing with partners in companies in order to bring it to fruition.

Hypertext: From Intelsat’s perspective, what are some of the challenges when it comes to working in such varying regions with this kind of initiative?

RM: It does vary. And it often varies on the availability of devices.

So 4G devices, namely phones, are more expensive than 3G ones. If people build a 4G network and forget about the number of 2G and 3G devices in a region, you often leave large parts of the community that are unable to access the connectivity that you’re looking to provide.

It depends on what challenges a specific region presents, so it goes back to the point I made about wanting to use a one-size-fits-all approach, which simply does not work across the entire continent.

We need to put the right connectivity piece in order to serve a particular community effectively, which is why engaging and working with those communities is crucial.

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