Africa: A possible springboard for low orbit broadband

Does low-orbit satellite broadband networking have the potential to replace subsea cables and bring reliable internet to Africa's remote users?


As this article is written, the internet - the world’s network of networks - is reliant on a backbone of optical links: very high capacity hookups working in or near the visible spectrum. The benefit of this, of course, is that such links can achieve extremely high bandwidth.

The downside of optical links is that almost anything can block or interfere with visible light; even clear air. This means that, normally, an optical link has to be carried along a fibre line. Fibre lines, often laid on the sea bed, make up that optical internet backbone. Provided your nation has enough undersea connections to cope with occasional breaks caused by weather, ships’ anchors etc, this is quite reliable.

Sometimes there are fibre links on the land all the way to actual individual users. In major cities, businesses can often get a fibre link of their own. In some countries and areas, even ordinary homeowners can have a fibre right into their own dwelling. However it’s more normal for the final stage or stages of the connection to be carried by legacy hard lines such as copper or coaxial cable: or, more and more, by one or another kind of wireless such as Wi-Fi or 5G mobile.

That’s the situation in the Northern Hemisphere, and quite a lot of the Southern, too. But things are a bit different in Africa - especially sub-Saharan Africa. Many African nations have only one or two undersea fibre connections to the wider internet, meaning that almost complete outages are routine events. Often the organisations controlling access to the fibre or fibres are ISPs and/or telcos in such a nation, meaning that they may set bandwidth prices very high and/or attempt to constrain rivals off the link altogether.

As a result, African internet bandwidth is some of the most expensive and unreliable in the world. Problems are particularly bad in landlocked nations where ISPs have to deal with neighbouring coastal states to get access to undersea links.

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