A number of international firms are competing to bring satellite broadband to the planet in the next few years using low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The new networks promise full global coverage, high performance and competitive pricing.
In the meantime, however, traditional satellite operators are already providing service via legacy systems. One notable effort is Konnect Africa, an initiative of Eutelsat, the Paris-based satellite communications firm. Konnect Africa has launched programs in nine sub-Saharan African countries (Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda), including a Smart Wifi hotspot service targeting small businesses and individuals in remote regions. The service provides all necessary equipment as well as a billing management system which allows businesses to charge individual users data usage fees. The service also allows local content storage and communications to provide free access to health, education, and other services. Konnect Africa marketing materials cite individual costs of “dozens of dollars” — but further detail about costs or performance aren’t yet available.
Huawei, the global networking company, releases an annual Global Connectivity Index, considering 40 indicators for 50 countries. The countries in the index represent 78% of global population and 90% of global GDP.
The 2017 report highlighted several key findings.
First, the Index has been steadily climbing with time.
Second, the countries in the index tend to cluster into three groups: Frontrunners (average per capita GDP $50,000); Adopters (per capital GDP $15,000); and Starters (per capita GDP $3,000). The areas of focus for the three groups vary widely.
Third, the gap between the groups is widening. The rich, so to speak, are getting richer in both absolute and relative terms. This raises a number of policy-related issues so that the “digital divide doesn’t become a digital chasm”.
As of now, how many people are online?
According to the UN’s State of Broadband 2017 — we don’t really know. The Report, as well as the accompanying Key Findings document, highlight the difficulty in collecting accurate and timely data.
That said, the Report does provide best estimates: as of now, 48% of the world’s population is online. Regions obviously vary greatly: Europe is 80% online, Africa only 22%.
Of those not online, a significant percentage have feature phone access with texting ability (but no data — typically through 2G networks). According to a recent Facebook study of 75 countries, 94% of the overall population had access to 2G networks, where as 76% had access to 3G (data) networks or better. So as more users come online, many more current users will be upgrading from feature to smartphones as networks are upgraded from 2G to 3G.
Internet adoption in developing countries is increasing due to better access, lower latency, and increased speed. Many different technologies are involved in this these improvements.
One important technology that is mostly “behind the scenes” — but is viewed as critical by network engineers — is the proliferation of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in developing countries. An IXP serves as a country-level or regional gateway between different networks, obviating the need to send traffic to distant regions or countries in order to be routed correctly. In other words, IXPs provide local shortcuts for internet traffic which lowers cost and latency.
According to the UN’s State of Broadband 2017 report:
“According to Packet Clearing House, 24 more countries established a new IXP over the twelve months between mid-2016 and mid-2017 (of which eleven were African). By mid-2017, 119 ITU Member States now have IXPs19, compared with 76 ITU Member States which do not. The total number of IXPs in ITU Member States globally is 471.”
The African countries were Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Rep. of Congo, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe. This increases the total number of African countries with IXPs to 29. Worldwide, 119 countries have IXPs, 76 do not. In total, 471 IXPs exist, including 145 in the EU and 84 in the US / Canada.
The United Nations created in 2010 the Broadband Commission for Digital Development — renamed in 2015 the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. The Broadband Commission seeks to raise the importance of global broadband for development, supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, all seventeen of which benefit from wider adoption of broadband.
The Broadband Commission boasts an impressive roster of Commissioners, co-chaired by Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecom magnate, and Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda.
The Commission has issued seven targets for 2025, including nation-level policy plans, lower costs, broader penetration, and better services for banking, small businesses, and others.
Additional key resources from the Commission include the State of Broadband 2017 report (including key findings) and an ITU Discussion Paper for the World Economic Forum 2017.
When a poor country faces challenges with food, water, sanitation, health, and other “life and death” issues, it seems counterintuitive to prioritize digital programs for development.
Recent research, however, shows that digital solutions can be both cost-effective and enabling of broader progress. A recent Tufts University report, for example, shows the importance of digitization in driving economic success.
In terms of specific countries, the Copenhagen Consensus, a Danish think tank, recently consulted with the governments of Bangladesh and Haiti about the best way to prioritize development dollars. In each case an international team of economists reviewed 70+ possible uses of development funding, ranking interventions from most effective to least.
In both cases, two “digital solutions” emerged in the top ten recommendations.
In the case of Bangladesh, one priority solution was the development of an “e-procurement” platform to lower costs and corruption around an antiquated procurement service. A second recommendation called for digitizing the land records system to bring transparency and efficiency to inefficient processes.
In the case of Haiti, recommendations included supporting the increase of internet coverage to 50% of the population (from around 4%), and digitizing tracking systems at Haiti’s largest port.
Other recommendations by the Copenhagen Consensus were more predictable — such as investing in malnutrition programs, education efforts, and power sector reform. But the inclusion of digital solutions only highlights the importance of expanding broadband to the full planet.
Since last May’s post on SpaceX efforts to deploy a low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation, more information has haltingly emerged from the effort.
First, it appears the initiative has a name: Starlink. The constellation of 4425 satellites will see initial prototypes launched in the next few weeks and operational launches beginning in 2019, rolling out over about five years. Limited service would be available in 2020 or 2021 with the initial 800 satellites.
The service will principally serve individuals and small businesses, using a laptop-sized user antennas. SpaceX is promising “fiber speeds”.
SpaceX is currently listing over 100 job openings in their Redmond office where the Starlink system is being designed and built. SpaceX also recently leased a new research lab space near their Redmond office.
SpaceX isn’t alone in the race to space-based broadband. Competitive initiatives include Samsung, Boeing, OneWeb, Lelesat LEO, SES O3B, Iridium Next, and LeoSat. OneWeb, as one example, plans to have initial service available to Alaska beginning in 2019. Iridium, as another, has deployed half of their 66 next generation satellites (with the help of SpaceX launches). The $3 billion Iridium upgrade will be complete in 2018.