subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Picture: 123RF/COOKELMA
Picture: 123RF/COOKELMA

MTN is discussions with satellite providers such as Elon Musk's Starlink as part of a plan to increase its network coverage to 95% of the population, in the countries in which it operates. 

Despite notable improvements this past decade, internet connectivity in rural areas and outside big centres remains limited, and building networking infrastructure in underserved areas is costly. Global telecoms body, the GSMA, says the coverage gap in sub-Saharan Africa has narrowed from 50% in 2014 to 17% in 2022.

In recent years, low Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites have grown in favour as a way to plug these gaps..

According to MTN group chief technology and information officer Mazen Mroué, their approach to increase network coverage relies on “two distinct yet complementary LEO-based solutions”.

The two major disadvantages with traditional satellite technology have to do with latency (the time it takes for signals to reach their destination) and limited bandwidth (the amount of data that can travel through a signal). Fibre and mobile are therefore seen as superior forms of access.

Low altitude satellites improve on this, offering faster speeds, mainly because satellites are closer to the ground. By sending a large number of these into the sky, creating a constellation, operators have been able to cover the main challenges associated with satellite technology.

But this comes at a heavy cost. Launching a traditional high altitude satellite is estimated to cost about $500m (about R9.5bn). To launch a network of low altitude satellites such as Starlink or OneWeb costs about $5bn.

MTN’s approaches to increase connectivity

To do this, MTN and telecommunication rivals such as  Vodacom, Telkom and Liquid have chosen to partner with specialist satellite providers on such projects. 

“To complement our terrestrial network — where the terrain can be difficult for radio sites and backhaul transport and sparse population distribution often makes regular cellular rollout uneconomical — we are now exploring the skies. Specifically, we are partnering for LEO satellite connectivity to connect the unconnected, extend mobile connectivity to more rural and remote areas and improve resilience,” said Mroué.

The group is aiming to achieve 95% broadband population coverage across its footprint by 2025, from 88% in 2022.

MTN says “multiple initiatives are under way” to make this happen including upcoming direct-to-cell trials with Lynk Global in SA and Ghana. Direct-to-cellular is the first leg of the company's strategy, which would see mobile devices being able to communicate or transfer data with satellites, in addition to cellular towers. 

Vodacom is also working on similar technology. 

The second leg would see LEO satellites providing fixed connectivity for enterprise customers and efficient backhaul connectivity for MTN cellular sites, particularly in remote and rural locations. 

Mroué said discussions are taking place with providers such as AST SpaceMobile for trials in Nigeria and South Sudan. “Concurrently, there are ongoing engagements with SpaceX’s Starlink, with enterprise-grade trials under way in Rwanda and Nigeria. In parallel, we are advancing discussions with Eutelsat OneWeb for a planned pilot in SA.”

The race for satellite dominance

In 2021, SpaceX, a space exploration company owned by SA-born Musk, began offering satellite-based internet services in the US and other parts of the world to connect those without access to fast 3G and 4G mobile connectivity or wired options through telephone or fibre lines. Starlink uses satellites to connect devices on the ground.

With SA being slow to bring in Starlink technology, a number of telecoms providers are working to secure deals that will, it is hoped, put them ahead of the competition, particularly in outlying and remote areas where connectivity continues to be a big headache.

Earlier in the year, communications & digital technologies minister Mondli Gungubele said Starlink had not applied for a licence to operate in SA.

With or without Starlink, telecoms operators are doing what they can to offer services that incorporate low altitude satellites and plug potential holes in their coverage.

In September, Vodacom parent company Vodafone and Project Kuiper, Amazon’s LEO communications initiative, announced a strategic partnership through which Vodafone and Vodacom plan to use Project Kuiper’s network to extend the reach of their 4G and 5G services to more of their customers in Europe and Africa.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.