Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Abu Dhabi satellite operator Yahsat opens world to Africa

The Abu Dhabi satellite operator is bringing fast access to the internet to swaths of the continent where previously online connectivity was patchy at best and often non-existent.
YahClick, the satellite broadband service provided by Yahsat, allows remote communities to access the internet in local libraries in South Africa. Courtesy Yahsat
YahClick, the satellite broadband service provided by Yahsat, allows remote communities to access the internet in local libraries in South Africa. Courtesy Yahsat

A young schoolchild, in a remote African village, walks into the local community library.

He sits in front of a desktop and, with just a few clicks of a keyboard, he has the world of information at his fingertips.

What sounds like a utopian vision is increasingly becoming reality across the world’s largest continent.

The future is here and no location, business or individual, no matter how far removed, is excluded.

Soon, few places – in South Africa, for example – will be unconnected, if Al Yah Satellite Communication Company (Yahsat), the Abu Dhabi-based satellite operator, has its way.

Prince Sebapu, who works for the National Library in Pretoria, has seen at first hand how YahClick, the satellite broadband service provided by Yahsat, has dragged the most analogue of institutions into the digital age.

“Our mother department, which is the department of arts and culture, they realised that they needed to improve the library services in different provinces,” Mr Sebapu says. “We want people to be able to access information, so the approach of the National Library was to divide province by province. Every year we do internet connectivity in a particular province.”

Game-changer

The biggest of South Africa’s provinces, Eastern Cape, now has 207 libraries in remote rural areas, where some do not even have electricity.

The Yahsat chief executive Masood Mahmood says until recently many schools and colleges in remote areas still relied on dial-up terrestrial connectivity to access the wider world, an often unreliable process that hindered learning and development. Satellite broadband has been a game-changer, with more children having access to a wider range of resources and, in some cases, distance learning where a tutor remotely takes a class from another facility. The practice is now spreading across Africa.

“We’ve witnessed how our broadband service, YahClick, is especially impactful in small towns and rural areas in Africa,” says Mr Mahmood. “For example, in Nigeria, we connected remote schools as part of a universal broadband programme giving those children the same opportunities they would have in cities and towns across the country.

“Taken for granted in many urban areas, availability of broadband services in rural communities can make the difference between employment and not earning a living, as well as good health. Every student, every school and every community we connect to resources brings us one-step closer to universal education and well-being in Africa.”

According to Mr Sebapu, many of the 207 Eastern Cape locations did not even have fibre optics or internet cables, so other solutions were needed to get them connected. The answer came in the shape of VSAT (very small aperture system), which requires the individual or business end user to own a box that allows its computer to interface with a satellite via an antenna.

This could revolutionise education and change the lives of the children who live in these villages. Mr Sebapu is keen to point out that each library functions individually and is not dependent on the programme being implemented across all 207 facilities before it goes online.

“In the province of the Eastern Cape, we are currently using the YahClick system,” he says. “The internet connection is very, very good, so it allows the community to be able to have access to the world through the internet. Other services allow you to make calls through the internet.”

The work of the National Libraries is not restricted to maintaining connectivity in these libraries. Indeed, it is keen to preserve the very essence of what makes a library a library: the physical books themselves.

“I can say I’m excited about it generally because we are getting reports that now there are more people that want to use the services of the library,” Mr Sebapu says. “Some of them are discovering there are books here, but their reason for the visit was the internet.”

Affordable technology

Today Yahsat’s YahClick has coverage across 28 countries in Africa, central and south-west Asia and the Middle East. The service uses Ka Band satellite technology – the latest in a line that still includes Ku Band and C Band – which has allowed such a rapid spread of coverage across these countries.

With the planned launch of the Al Yah 3 satellite this year, the coverage will increase to include a further 19 countries in Africa as well as Brazil. This means YahClick will cover 60 per cent of Africa’s population and 95 per cent of Brazil’s.

Internet usage rates in South Africa vary considerably from one location to another. In many rural areas, a terrestrial connection (like dial-up) is the only option. Even then, the performance of this relatively older technology remains erratic for many users.

Satellite technology, an arena in which Yahsat vies with the likes of the UK provider Avanti, might be more expensive than land-based options but it is faster and considerably more reliable.

Just as important, connection through the Ka Band is now more affordable than the Ku and C bands.

Crucially, according to Yahsat, the service “provides affordable high-speed internet access to both rural and urban customers”. It is this cost effectiveness that has attracted many small businesses and individual users.

The impact has been significant in many fields. If the system has allowed schoolchildren access to a modern education and access to the internet at local libraries, it has also changed the way business is being conducted. Traditional practices built across many generations are now being complemented by technology.

“The benefits of satellite broadband spread beyond education and we also work with NGOs to connect the most hard to reach places to the outside world,” Mr Mahmood says. “It means that vital inbound services, not readily available locally, can operate remotely such as health care. Kenya is a prime example where YahClick was used to connect rural health clinics in a nationwide eHealth project.”

Business accessibility

One beneficiary of the coverage has been Carien De Villiers, a farm owner in the remote South Africa village of Thorndale, where she sells livestock to surrounding businesses and further afield.

“In the valley, there is almost like an exchange nature of doing business,” Ms De Villiers says. “So what we do is, the chicken farmers provide me chickens and I provide sheep in return. The area where I live is very remote, to such an extent that the police even don’t want to come here always.”

Even in such a traditional industry, which had functioned through word of mouth for decades before the advent of the internet, being connected has now become indispensable to carrying out business.

“This valley is also known for bad reception,” Ms De Villiers says. “I know some of my neighbours never had reception. They go into town to the Wimpy to be able to get reception in order to do business.

“If I want to do contract work for people and be able to check prices of cattle and sheep and be informed, I will need something that I can rely on,” she adds.

Yahclick has given Ms De Villiers an advantage over others in carrying out her daily business, she says.

“Since I’ve had YahClick, I always have a connection, which I can’t say about any of my neighbours.

“I basically use it for emails. My son is working overseas, I Skype with him. I do my day-to-day business, send proposals, absolutely everything.”

Ms De Villiers says internet access has allowed her to remain living in this remote area, which she admits she loves, while at the same time not missing out on any developments in the business world, and being able to provide her services to customers in more corporate environments.

Government benefits

With private small businesses such as Ms De Villiers’ relying on connectivity to keep them afloat, governmental services are now also striving to keep up with technological developments. Many state employees in remote provinces have never been inside a government building or office and are often in danger of missing out benefits that are rightfully theirs.

“In recent years, there has been a marked shift in governments moving toward e-services,” Mr Mahmood says. “This works well in urban areas where they are easily accessible.

“However, to date, the availability of these services across remote communities remains rather low.

“This can be attributed to many factors including lack of on-ground infrastructure required for traditional internet and unfavourable geographical conditions.”

It is an issue that the government pensions administration agency has attempted to address in recent years, and the YahClick broadband has helped it to set up an initiative that is spreading its way to the country’s least accessible regions.

The Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) field operations in South Africa is an outreach project aimed at those who for years may have lost out on income through lack of awareness of what is rightfully theirs.

“It is the largest pension fund in Africa and I think the seventh largest in the world,” says Sandi du Toit, who is part of the GEPF staff in Pretoria. “We make sure that employees who have worked for the government for a long period of time have safe pensions until they pass away.”

South Africa is the continent’s ninth-largest country by area, with a population of almost 53 million of whom more than 2.1 million are civil servants. Providing them with connectivity is a monumental task at the best of times. Considering the remoteness of many of the areas, it often borders on impossible.

“Obviously, public servants are spread throughout the country,” says Ms du Toit. “We have public servants in even the smallest rural towns. We have members of the South African nation defence force on farms in the most rural areas of our country, and those people cannot get in a car and drive to a regional office, a physical building, and speak to a GEPF fund representative.

“So we created this initiative to take the services to those areas.”

The results were immediate. Mobile vans, equipped with YahClick deployable antennae, now travel across South Africa spreading knowledge on how to access pension funds. Still, Ms du Toit says that billions of rand remain unclaimed.

“There are thousands of people in our country that have money sitting at GEPF who are living in poverty that we can help,” Ms du Toit says.

“We cannot [change] that if we are sitting in an office, we can do that through mobile vans. We go to places where there is nothing. [The] SIM cards don’t work because there is no reception.”

Africa’s internet penetration is expected to reach 50 per cent by 2025 as smartphones hit a forecast 360 million, a significant rise from 16 per cent and 67 million in 2013.

“African and Asian economies are set to continue growing, allowing more people to attain higher disposable income and consequently, a better standard of living,” Mr Mahmood says.

“The correlation between investment in broadband connectivity and the growth in economic activity has been well established, with research suggesting that for every 10 per cent increase in broadband connectivity, the GDP of developing nations rises by 1.38 per cent.”

Such figures, allied with the obvious benefits of more affordable technology, should ensure there will be even fewer places without connectivity in 2017.

“Satellite communications services bring significant benefits for individuals and communities,” Mr Mahmood says.

“They offer stable, affordable broadband connectivity that, in turn, has the ability to change the fortunes of a nation, and its people, for the better.”

business@thenational.ae

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Updated: January 10, 2017 04:00 AM

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