SES Networks: enabling rural connectivity with cost effective solutions

Read this article to learn:

  • What kind of space and ground infrastructure is operated by SES in Africa
  • The solutions needed to improve rural connectivity
  • The business models lowering the cost of satellite backhaul
  • The roll of satellite in future network rollout

With the development of data-centric applications and overall expansion of communication needs, improving connectivity across Africa has never been more important. But the vastness of the continent often means high-speed connectivity comes with high cost. Christian Olsson, Senior Manager, Segment Market EMEA and North America at SES Networks, talks about how satellite-based solutions, together with terrestrial infrastructure, can meet both challenges.

TowerXchange: Could you introduce what SES Networks does and what kind of space and ground infrastructure it operates, particularly in our region?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

SES Networks is a global managed data services provider for variety of sectors, including telecommunications, maritime, aeronautical, energy, as well as governments and institutions across the world. It is part of a world-leading satellite operator SES, which owns and operates a global fleet of over 70 Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) and unique Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites, as well as an extensive teleport infrastructure.

For the last 20 years, we have been serving customers, including a large number of mobile network operators, across the African continent. Today, we do it by providing services on the 26 satellites we operate in the region. In particular, our O3b MEO managed services that provide high-speed and fibre-like broadband services have been instrumental in transforming the connectivity landscape of countries such as South Sudan, Chad, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic and many more.

TowerXchange: What does bringing connectivity to rural and remote areas require today, and what kind of solutions are needed?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

Achieving coverage in rural and remote areas in a cost-effective way has been a challenge for the industry. Standard connectivity solutions that work in the urbanised areas, typically comprise macro cells with high towers and high-performance radio equipment, and are intended to serve a large number of subscribers. Such solutions are not applicable in remote rural areas from a cost perspective. One will need to apply a different technical approach combined with the right business model that can scale, and deliver connectivity to the large amount of uncovered locations in Africa. 

The solution to this are smaller installations that are low-powered, utilising renewable energy, which include VSAT technology for backhaul that can be easily deployed in any location. Together with partners, we at SES Networks can provide this kind of solutions more suited for rural areas. They are less capex intensive, practically self-sufficient and require minimal maintenance, which allows the necessary return on the investment to make the business case work.

TowerXchange: But the perceived high cost of satellite backhaul is seen as a real barrier in lowering the cost of delivering connectivity in such areas – is this changing?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

Yes, that has long been the case, however, the reality has changed due to satellite technology advancements: over the last few years, satellite, like many technologies, has considerably evolved. SES Networks has put a focus on innovation and standardisation to address the challenges of the Telco industry, and to make sure that satellite is no longer perceived as expensive and bespoke. 

Here are a couple of examples. A rural site with 2G today is able to provide great service with less than 100 Kbps of backhaul. When deploying 3G and 4G/LTE VSAT backhaul, by dynamically sharing backhaul capacity across all connected towers as a result of satellites vast coverage and use of the statistical benefit of the data usage pattern, our customers can save more than 30% of bandwidth. Combining that with the increased spectral efficiency one can achieve with the latest modem technology, the cost of satellite backhaul is no longer a barrier but an enabler in delivering connectivity to remote areas.

TowerXchange: Can you expand a bit more on what kind of business models you see working, and is building partnerships a way forward to deliver coverage more cost effectively? What discussions have you as a global managed data services provider had to date?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

Partnerships are certainly the way forward, and we have been discussing with various players in the region on how we can work together. We increasingly see towercos opening up to solutions that go beyond ‘steel and grass’ in order to make sites more lucrative and expand into new revenue streams. Through our engagement with towercos, we also see that they are looking into adopting innovative technologies that allow fast coverage expansion for their customers in any location, removing challenging terrains as a barrier. Together, we can certainly create services capabilities to bring new solutions to market faster, and enable new business.

TowerXchange: How does the quality of service provided by satellite compare to that of other networks, in terms of latency for example, and in terms of overall reliability and performance?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

Mobile operators always strive to achieve a high quality of service (QoS) in this competitive market. Complying with QoS is also a legal obligation, and is enforced by regulators. Many aspects, such as call set-up time, percentage of dropped calls for voice, download and upload speeds for data, need to be taken into account to win in this market and gain trust of the end-user.

As a managed data services provider, we pride ourselves on providing quality service and easily-integrated solutions. In particular, our O3b services surpass others in the industry when it comes to latency mitigation. We have also optimised our network to align with the industry standards – we are the first satellite services provider to achieve MEF 2.0 certification – to ensure that we deliver according to mobile operators’ expectations. This certification means that we can deliver a native Ethernet service that can be readily and seamlessly implemented within mobile network, just like it was terrestrial transport.

TowerXchange: Given the increasing rollout of fibre across the African continent, what do you see as the role of satellite?

Christian Olsson, Senior Segment Market Manager, EMEA & North America, SES Networks:

You would be surprised by the demand for satellite services right now. Despite fibre being rolled out actively across Africa, it clearly has its limits. The strength of the satellite is that it is able to quickly deliver reliable connectivity to any location. SES Networks can deliver capabilities anywhere, from one Megabit to tens of Gigagabits. In instances where fibre is non-existent, satellite is present. Even if fibre has been rolled-out, there is always a need for a back-up solution and this is where satellite can also step up. 

Customers in Africa often suffer outages as a result of a domestic fibre being cut, power lines coming down, vandalism and various other reasons. Satellites up in space, on the other hand, are virtually untouchable and can deliver capacity and backhaul into any point in the network to provide service. That allows for a standardised solution regardless of location, making life easier for transmission planners.

In the end, connecting Africa is a big challenge due to the sheer size of the region and its large rural population. Relying solely on the terrestrial technology is unfeasible due to technical considerations as well as pure economics.

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