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Satellite Broadband Aims to Revolutionize African Development

  • Henry Ridgwell

A new satellite system was launched into orbit last week that aims to bring high-speed Internet to remote communities across the globe. Its backers say it could have a big impact in rural parts of Africa by speeding up economic and social development. Others argue the huge amounts of money, however, should be spent on more basic needs.

Lift-off for the O3b - or "Other 3 Billion" - satellite system occurred last week in French Guiana. The system goes "live" later this year when eight satellites will enter a lower orbit to provide a faster connection.

Its backers include Google and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, among others.

Founder Greg Wyler said the "Other 3 Billion" are the people on the planet without access to fast Internet.

“This will enable everybody, and it will be a cascading effect, but it enables everybody in these societies to become economically relevant to the rest of the world,” he said.

Fast connection, pervasive coverage

The O3b satellites will provide Internet coverage anywhere within 45 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator.

Rival Inmarsat will launch a satellite Internet system called Global Xpress later this year.

Dele Meiji Fatunla, web editor for Britain’s Royal African Society, said, “In the rural areas I think it would have an impact on the way people can get information related to healthcare, information related to education.”

In the Atlantic off west Africa, cable-laying ships completed the submarine West Africa Cable System last year. Sub-Saharan Africa alone has nine submarine cables, with a total capacity of 22 terabytes.

Fatunla said broadband boosts economic growth.

“I think a lot of small and medium enterprises would benefit from that," he said. "And it might also have a political impact in the sense that the Internet, if it’s fairly open, will allow organizations and people to mobilize much more effectively.”

Other pressing needs

But broadband by itself won’t revolutionize governance, said Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development in Washington.

“If government isn’t picking up the phone, if you will, if government isn’t answering the emails, just having a broadband connection isn’t going to help,” he said.

And when it comes to healthcare, said Kenny, government money would be better spent on basic needs.

“Vaccines, bed nets, it’s the very basic health interventions that are having a huge impact. Africa doesn’t have many doctors; it doesn’t matter if they’re all connected to broadband. So I think particularly where it comes to health, broadband may not be the ‘wiz-bang’ solution,” he said.

But Fatunla said broadband’s potential should not be underestimated.

“You have to remember that there’s going to be a core of people who are active in societies in Africa, particularly civil society, who will benefit from there being better access to information," he said. "And I think those people will, in turn, be able to pressure government structures a lot more.”

Analysts warn that even though the satellites and cables are connecting to Africa, the prices charged by Internet service providers on the ground need to be lower before broadband’s full potential is realized.

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