Internet connectivity via satellite has always been regarded as slow and expensive for its users, and cumbersome and expensive for its owners. SpaceX changed all that with the Starlink constellation of cheap satellites, which now make up more than half the satellites orbiting earth – 5,000 and climbing.
Suddenly, satellite connectivity was available to consumers, at a cost that did not seem too outrageous for those of means. However, Starlink remains out of reach for South Africans, since government regulations require black ownership of any Internet service provider.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the advent of Starlink has created massive awareness not only of the benefits of satellite Internet connectivity, but also its use cases. Most important, it has highlighted a fact that the industry has been trying to persuade the market to believe for years: satellite connectivity has a key role to play in filling the gaps in access that are left by inhospitable terrain or infrastructure.
David Eurin, CEO of Liquid Dataport, the connectivity arm of Liquid Intelligent Technologies, suddenly found his job a lot easier at this weeks’s AfricaTech conference and expo in Cape Town.
It was not that attendees needed convincing that satellite remained important, but rather that its value proposition was now part of the buzz of the rapidly shifting digital era. For example, Liquid Dataport this week announced a collaboration with Intelsat, a 60-year-old business that is synonymous with communications satellites.
“The impact of intermittent availability of electricity in recent years is a major hurdle in Africa becoming a digital economy,” said Eurin. “However, due to our collaboration with Intelsat, we can now help businesses remain connected even during the hours of load-shedding.
“A lot of the fibre networks and cellular networks are not as reliable as people were hoping for. So you could end up being in your office or at home, with your solar panels still working, but the grid is down. And eventually the mobile networks go down. You don’t have a connection.
“Users have been asking us to create a backup solution for them, via satellite. We’ve deployed more than 1,000 receivers in South Africa, and it’s a very lightweight solution. You can just use it when you need it. The satellite network is always going to be on, as long as you can power the panel.”
Dataport also collaborates with Eutelsat OneWeb, which provides broadband satellite Internet services in low Earth orbit (LEO). Eurin expects to work with Starlink in the longer term, and that such collaboration could help bring it to South Africa. He also has high hopes for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, a plan to build a network of 3,236 LEO satellites.
However, consumers will have to wait a while to take advantage of such options. Eurin says his company is targeting big corporates, typically banks, mines, and large retailers. Industries like oil and gas and transport and logistics are also on the radar.
“Banks have got big sites and they already use satellite technologies, but they see the potential for an increase in capacity that they are able to use.”
Even if Starlink does arrive here, he does not expect it to disrupt this status quo.
“In the markets where they already operate they have been moderately successful, because they bring a new price point. But interestingly, that has not really cannibalised any of our business so far. What we see is that, for SMEs, it’s still quite expensive, so it doesn’t really remove any business from me. It just increases the addressable market for everyone.
“We’re hoping to get into an agreement with them soon, to add that to our product. What’s interesting about Starlink is that it has woken up the market about what satellite can actually do.”
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee.