Universal mobile coverage looming as bigwigs compete

Service driven by integration of satellites with terrestrial networks

In Summary

• At one level, Vodacom's announcement of space-based coverage in Kenya raises the spectre of competition for Elon Musk's Starlink

• On another level, it heralds a new age of universal mobile coverage for the continent: an Africa where no one gets left behind

Graphic of the big two in contest
Graphic of the big two in contest

A statement by Vodacom Group that it placed a space-based network under formal trial with its Kenyan subsidiary Safaricom has ignited a frenzy of speculation that the company is to compete with Starlink's satellite services in Africa directly.

"After successful completion of the trial, AST SpaceMobile will scale up their satellite deployments in partnership with Vodacom to provide ubiquitous communications to 4G devices across African and beyond," Vodacom disclosed in its Integrated Report 2023.

"This capability will enable Vodacom to provide coverage in rural areas, where it is challenging to provide connectivity through traditional terrestrial communications solutions," Vodacom said.

Trials were conducted through AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 satellite.

Vodacom parent firm Vodafone Group Plc is an investor in Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, whose offering differs from Starlink's by connecting to unmodified mobile phones without a modem.

"AST SpaceMobile plans to be the first space-based network to connect standard mobile phones at broadband speeds," Vodafone announced on its website in February 2022.

"Devices would switch between space and ground-based networks automatically, effectively eliminating coverage gaps and ensuring customers can stay connected on the move."

The Texas-based company tested speeds of over 10Mbps in Hawaii in June, according to the company's website.

"AST SpaceMobile technology is designed to expand coverage for wireless companies, filling in gaps and dead zones in their networks," the company explains on its website.

"This could help bring cellular broadband services to hundreds of millions of people across the globe who still lack access to reliable cellular service."

The company uses a network of low-earth satellites to provide its broadband services.

Vodacom operates in South Africa, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, with more than 185 million customers.

Formal trials in Kenya point to that country being the first market for the kind of blanket coverage that a space-based service offers, through subsidiary Safaricom.

Elon Musk's SpaceX-owned satellite Internet provider, Starlink, with 1.5 million subscribers, activated its services in Kenya earlier in July.

"Starlink for sale in Kenya! Note, buying a Starlink with global roaming allows you to travel almost anywhere," Musk wrote in a tweet on July 18.

East African Internet service provider Karibu Connect was picked as Starlink's first authorised re-seller in Kenya.

"The deployment of Starlink's groundbreaking technology will revolutionise how rural Kenya engages with the global community, fostering societal progress and driving economic growth," Karibu Connect CEO John Thuo said.

Starlink's customers will be required to install an antenna and a WiFi router, while Safaricom customers will not require any physical infrastructure installation to make use of AST Spacemobile's services.

Starlink offers high-speed data links of up to 500 Mbps, with minimal latency.

Starlink is officially available in three other African markets: Nigeria, Rwanda and Mozambique. By year-end, the company is eyeing Chad, Mauritania, Angola, Namibia and Somalia. It is yet to get a licence to operate in South Africa.

In March, SpaceX vice president of Starlink enterprise sales Jonathan Hofeller announced at the Satellite 2023 conference in Washington DC that the company plans to also start testing satellite-to-mobile phone services in 2023.

Tests were planned with T-Mobile in the US, and it is still unclear when or if the service will be expanded to Africa.

Euroconsult's Universal Access 2023 report affirms the growing momentum of the direct-to-device (D2D) satellite market, attributing the growth to new regulations and new 5G standards integrating satellites into terrestrial networks more seamlessly.

Research firm Statista predicts worldwide subscribers in the satellite-to-device market to reach 110 million by 2025 and surge to 330 million by 2030.

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