When space exploration company OneWeb filed for bankruptcy on March 27 this year, Rwanda was on the brink of losing a deal that would have seen it increase access to cheap Internet.
Rwanda had signed a deal with OneWeb to benefit from its planned 720 communication satellites. But with bankruptcy hanging over its head, the company was unlikely to deliver on its promise to the Rwandese.
The company has since been rescued. A consortium of the UK Government and Bharti Enterprises bought OneWeb, a company that had raised $3.2 billion and had acquired valuable spectrum rights, for $1 billion.
OneWeb’s primary goal is closing the digital divide by bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas around the world.
A question that begs an answer is why a country like Rwanda would enter a deal with OneWeb to increase access to internet despite the continent’s linkages to undersea cables (Fibre Optic).
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In Kenya’s digital transformation dream spelt out in Vision 2030, fibre optic is seen as a major link to internet for Kenyans and government offices. Rwanda and Kenya has the same goal but different approaches.
However, Rwanda’s path might speed access of internet to its rural population faster than Kenya’s.
According to Kenya’s ICT Ministry data, 6000km of optical fibre to supply internet has already been laid across the country. For avoidance of doubt, 6000km is equivalent to the distance from Nairobi to France or Nepal.
Then why are millions of citizens and even some government offices yet to be connected to Internet service?
The answer is that people do not live on straight lines that can be reached by even the 12,742km diameter of the earth.
Rwanda realised that and it formed the basis of their deal with OneWeb.
Unlike fiber optics, satellites provide zonal coverage. For instance, each of OneWeb’s satellite cover 75,000 square kilometres. One satellite can provide Internet to the whole of Rwanda which has an area of 26,500 square kilometres.
Putting aside the cost variation, it is easy and more scalable to provide Internet through satellites than laying optical fibre.
Back home, the satellite can provide Internet to the whole of Turkana county which is 71,500 square kilometres.
Satellite communication has improved with advancement in technology.
For a long time, communication satellites were located above 35000km in space. Scientifically, at that distance, only three satellites are needed to provide Internet to the whole world.
However, the downside is that it takes time for the information to be relayed and the speed is slower. That was responsible for migration to optical fibre.
Scientists have established that satellites can be positioned closer to the earth down to as low as 1000km. That requires around 66 satellites to achieve global Internet coverage. They can also achieve high data rates of up to 300 gigabytes per second.
This discovery is responsible for a paradigm shift from fiber optics Internet distribution to satellites.
The terrestrial deployment of infrastructure that will be necessary to achieve technologies such as 5G, Internet of Things (IoT) and Internet of Bodies (IoB) requires huge investments.
Think of the number of base stations (masts) that the telcos have built to provide 3G network yet some parts of the country still experience poor coverage. For 4G, the coverage is still restricted to major urban centres.
Challenging terrain and other environmental and social factors, such armed conflicts in certain regions exacerbate the deployment cost of necessary technology. Satellites eradicate the issue of topography and population since the spot beam from the antenna covers a zone beneath its footprint.
This is why the UK government came to the rescue of OneWeb. Kenya can leverage on the upcoming satellite systems such as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites to fast-track its digital transformation agenda.
Satellite communication allows access of Internet to the remotest parts of the country if the user is in line of sight to the satellite. SpaceX has plans to launch 12,000 satellites, increasing to 42,000 once operations.
Ideally, anyone in the world would have access to at least four satellites. It will be needless to lay thousands of kilometers of fibre.