Q&A | Eutelsat OneWeb’s Approach to Empowering Rural Africa

In an interview with TechAfrica News at AfricaCom, Michel Azibert, Board Member and Advisor to the CEO of Eutelsat OneWeb, highlighted the collaborative success of the Eutelsat-OneWeb merger, emphasizing the expansion of affordable satellite connectivity services in rural Africa.

Tell us about AfricaCom 2023—how did it go for Eutelsat OneWeb? We’re eager to hear your highlights and how the event shaped up from your perspective.

AfricaCom was a unique event for us as it marked the first time the Eutelsat and OneWeb teams collaborated since our merger about a month ago. Both engineering and commercial teams worked together to introduce our new services to African customers, particularly in South Africa. Our focus is on all Africa, and we’ve been providing connectivity services in rural Africa for the past two years through a service called Konnect. This service extends to homes, schools, hospitals, and villages, and its popularity is rapidly increasing with additional capacity expected in the coming months.

Konnect is an affordable satellite solution, and we collaborate with local service providers and telcos to ensure widespread coverage. Additionally, we are introducing OneWeb, a low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation, to South Africa, with coverage expanding to equatorial regions by the first half of 2024. We’re currently testing the service with potential partners like NEC, with whom we’ve announced a non-exclusive partnership for distribution, especially targeting the enterprise segment.

I believe that satellite connectivity will be a crucial solution for about one-third to one-fourth of this population, especially in the most rural areas where affordability and sustainability are vital.

Michel Azibert, Board Member and Advisor to the CEO, Eutelsat OneWeb

Is satellite connectivity the ideal solution for connecting rural areas in Africa?

I had the opportunity to share my perspective on a panel at AfricaCom. Currently, over 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack proper internet connectivity, according to the ITU. I believe that satellite connectivity will be a crucial solution for about one-third to one-fourth of this population, especially in the most rural areas where affordability and sustainability are vital. While other forms of connectivity, such as mobile and fiber, will progress, satellite technology, particularly with the advancements in low-earth orbit and high-throughput geostationary satellites, will play a significant role. Our approach involves partnerships with local players, ISPs, integrators, and telcos to ensure a comprehensive and impactful solution.

What changes have occurred after the merger with OneWeb, and how has the market responded?

The merger with OneWeb has brought about several positive changes. Firstly, we are expanding our global coverage, reaching regions like the DRC, Ivory Coast, and East Africa in the coming months. The integration of the two companies allows us to accelerate processes both commercially and technically. We are working on a GEO-LEO strategy, combining the strengths of geostationary and low-earth orbit satellites. Additionally, we are jointly planning the second generation of OneWeb, set to launch in 2028, promising an even more powerful constellation. This integration enhances our ability to provide a broader range of services and solutions.

What role do partnerships with telcos play in your strategy?

While it may be premature to term them partnerships, we are engaged in discussions with major telcos. Companies like Orange, Vodacom, and Three have expressed positive sentiments towards satellite technology, recognizing it as a key component of their technological landscape. We aim to complement their efforts by providing satellite solutions that contribute to universal service goals. Our shared goal is to create a collaborative ecosystem where everyone works together to provide cost-effective services, especially in semi-rural and rural areas.

The infrastructure is crucial, but so is awareness. How do you see governments contributing to creating awareness?

Governments play a vital role in creating the right regulatory environment and facilitating access to markets. Beyond that, they can drive awareness through well-planned public service programs. The perception of satellites has evolved from being a disaster recovery solution to becoming mainstream. Government initiatives highlighting the benefits of satellite connectivity in areas like health, education, and tax administration can significantly contribute to creating awareness among the population.

The satisfaction of users in remote areas is a critical indicator. How has the reception been in places like the DRC?

We have seen positive feedback from users in remote areas, including the DRC. Our services have transformed connectivity in villages, with around 1,000 villages currently active. The satisfaction of users is monitored closely, and reports suggest that people are happy with the services provided. This positive feedback reinforces the impact we are making in previously underserved regions.

The evolution from being perceived as only WhatsApp to offering a broader range of services is noteworthy. How do you see the future of connectivity in Africa?

The future of connectivity in Africa involves continuous progress on various fronts. We are actively working on improving terminal technology to reduce costs, especially for LEOs. Our focus is on providing affordable solutions like the Wi-Fi bubble, a shared connectivity model that allows users to access the internet using their existing phones. Collaboration with telcos, governments, and other stakeholders is key to ensuring a holistic and sustainable approach to connectivity in Africa.

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