Avanti Communications prides itself as the leading satellite operator providing high-throughput Ka-band satellite connectivity to the communications industry across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Whether in orbit or on the ground, Avanti has built a roster of assets that enable the business to deliver rural backhaul and provide mission-critical satellite capacity to communications partners.
In 2010, Avanti became the first British commercial company to launch a Ka-band satellite, HYLAS 1. Today, it owns and operates a fleet of high-throughput satellites covering EMEA with state-of-the-art steerable capacity. On the ground, Avanti has built a secure and resilient ground network to serve its partners across the industry.
Space in Africa had a chat with the CEO of Avanti Communications, Kyle Whitehill, to learn more about their current services and projects in Africa.
Africa is one of your company’s greatest strongholds. How much revenue does Avanti garner from Africa annually?
We are not a public company, so we cannot disclose our African revenues. However, it equates to approximately 35% of our total earnings, roughly a third of our revenues. In addition, Africa corresponds to 75% of our entire network, so we have a strong ambition to rapidly grow our business on the continent. We foresee Africa becoming our majority revenue source within two to three years.
From the African government’s perspective towards creating sustainable development by leveraging space technology, which solutions and regions do you believe have the strongest potential for your business growth in Africa?
Based on my experiences in Africa, there are two specific opportunities for government and commercial entities to tap into and two ways to take advantage of them.
First, the vast majority of the African continent currently has no connectivity, whether making voice calls or accessing data. Right from the start, I knew that to bridge the connectivity gap, we needed to work alongside Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and build an infrastructure that serves rural and semi-rural areas. One of the most significant barriers local MNOs face regarding rural connectivity is a lack of infrastructure and terrestrial networks.
However, in the last 12-18 months, Mobile Operators like Orange, MTN, Airtel, and Globacom, have become quite innovative and are now working with their partners to build smaller and cost-effective “Rural Sites” that extend broadband connectivity to people living in rural areas.
Our first opportunity for growth has focussed on supporting MNOs, in their efforts to build rural networks that ensure affordable and sufficient coverage in rural areas. For example, Avanti launched its own managed service for rural connectivity, Avanti EXTEND. It provides high-performance and cost-effective 2G, 3G and 4G solutions to challenging locations that would otherwise be impossible to reach using the traditional terrestrial infrastructure.
Secondly, governments are increasingly motivated to build networks for government buildings, schools, and hospitals in rural areas. This is another area of growth for Avanti in Africa, as there is a greater understanding of connectivity’s key role in improving access to technology, education, and medical services.
These two areas are set to generate the most growth in Africa and will hold for the next several years.
Avanti Communications partnered with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) on the Girls’ Education Awareness Programme (GEAP) to reduce the barriers to girls’ education. What is the success story so far?
This programme’s main priority is to address barriers to girls’ education through targeted, context-specific awareness and information campaigns. It encourages girls to attend school and educates communities on the benefits of education for families and the wider community. For example, highlighting that a well-educated child will have greater job opportunities and can support their family more effectively can make the decision easier for parents/guardians.
We are incredibly proud of helping girls get to school and improve their education when they get there.
You signed a partnership with Viasat Energy Services to support the connectivity needs of your customers in the energy sector within North-East and Western Africa. Is this a pilot project towards a much larger goal? If yes, what are the priorities for this project in the long run?
Two years ago, RigNet merged its capabilities with Viasat to become Viasat Energy Services, offering a globally managed services network infrastructure. RigNet provides global, end-to-end, secure managed communications service, installation capabilities, and digital transformation solutions. In addition, using its extensive Ku band capabilities, Viasat can quickly expand into adjacent industries, including renewable energy, transportation, maritime, mining and other enterprise markets.
To help support the connectivity needs of its customers in the energy sector, we partnered with Viasat Energy Services. We introduced capacity from our fleet of HYLAS Ka-band satellites to extend coverage across the North Sea and Western Africa.
Currently, we are deploying seven or eight oil rigs off the North Sea and the coast of Angola to demonstrate Ka-band and its capacity to generate very high throughput satellite services on oil rigs, which means people can enjoy significantly better streaming and internet services.
Avanti recently signed a partnership with Free in Senegal for the latter to build and host a new satellite gateway in Senegal for Avanti’s HYLAS 4 Ka-band satellite. What do you think this deal will translate into for the entire region?
First, HYLAS 4 covers the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and the plan has always been to have a local gateway station, just like our first Gateway Earth Station (GES) in West Africa, hosted at MDXI’s satellite farm in Lagos, Nigeria.
Over the past four years, the GES has ensured that data from the HYLAS 4 Ka-band satellite is delivered in-country efficiently and interconnected with other networks. We also have another GES in Johannesburg, providing similar services to the one in Lagos. These two gateways have enabled us to cover the majority of the sub-Saharan region, delivering high throughput satellite (HTS) connectivity to complement the region’s existing fibre-optic networks, ensuring access is available to enable high-speed internet everywhere, even to the most remote and rural locations.
We planned to cover seven additional West African countries eventually. HYLAS 4 required a gateway to be built in Senegal, which translated into a partnership with Free in Senegal. We are building the gateway and expect it to be operational by the first quarter of this year.
This gateway will allow us to open up several Western African countries, including Côte D’Ivoire, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and similar areas. As soon as we commission the gateway, we can provide HTS Ka-band capacity services there.
What were your key takeaways from the AfricaCom Expo 2022, and how has it changed your outlook towards Africa?
I have been attending AfricaCom since 2018, and the conversation back then was about how best to connect an unconnected continent.
Fast forward to 2022, and the narrative has changed. Now the conversation is focused on what is happening in the industry and the progress being made. This is also the case at Avanti. We have transitioned from mere talks to making things happen. We currently deploy rural sites in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and many more.
With several industry players now able to provide connectivity services globally across Africa, we are witnessing a second wave. The conversation has evolved to focus on the end users of these services. It is a significant success story for me.
The second and most important takeaway from AfricaCom 2022 was spending time with two representatives from the National Communication Authority in South Sudan.
We passionately discussed their country’s requirements for connectivity infrastructure and how satellite connectivity supported their sustainable development goals. We also discussed how Avanti could help with the country’s bottom line. The advent of new players, networks and services is causing more countries across Africa to demand some level of connectivity. As a result, there is a big opportunity for growth in Africa which Avanti is poised to unlock.
Over the past five years, Avanti has partnered with several companies to implement projects/sell solutions across the continent. Can you highlight some important ones to your company’s growth prospects?
One of our most important partnerships is with Clear Blue, the smart-off-grid company. Together we are accelerating the rollout of low-cost connectivity solutions in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where network coverage and broadband services have been limited or non-existent. Therefore, we also provide critical HTS Ka-band satellite connectivity and VSAT equipment as part of this joint rural deployment effort. At the same time, Clear Blue deploys its innovative off-grid solar-powered solutions with remote management and control.
Additionally, our partnership with NuRAN Wireless has distributed a combined 2G RAN product alongside our Ka-band satellite backhaul solution.
NuRAN is based in Canada and operates live sites in Cameroon, DRC, Ghana, South Sudan and Namibia. With their impressive network, they currently help the government and mobile operators to deploy more networks in Sudan and Libya. In addition, they are very innovative in the way they have been creating their connection modules, having successfully evolved from the old method of buying equipment and deploying them.
We are excited to build on our existing relationships with Clear Blue and NuRAN and develop even more impressive solutions for African communities.
Is Avanti implementing any CSR initiatives in Africa?
Four years ago, we made it our mission to provide African refugees with equal access to connectivity services. We have since worked closely with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to provide satellite communication services freely to some of the biggest refugee camps across East Africa. Currently, we’ve provided services to nine camps in East Africa.
Fostering such connectivity in refugee camps has allowed refugees to carry out essential tasks and connect with friends and families they might have lost touch with whilst fleeing their home countries. It also gives them hope to prepare for a future, relocate, and start small businesses. For these reasons, we want to continue helping displaced people make the most of their lives, even in difficult situations.
What do you think about the prospect of satellite IoT on a grander scale? Are you looking to adopt its application, or is it not a focus area for Avanti?
Twenty years ago, the marketing team presented the concept of end-to-end or machine-to-machine interaction. They predicted there would be an enormous market for such interactions, and what is interesting for me is that, for the first time, IoT is being incorporated into satellites and 5G.
In this light, consider how many remote machines are in Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world; this seems like the breakthrough time for such innovation. We have finally arrived at a critical time in technology advancement where the key component required for the successful implementation of several innovations will be through satellite and 5G to deliver global coverage.
For example, multinational companies such as Coca-Cola can utilise this to connect all their vending machines and connect and manage all their sites in Africa. However, rolling out this plan cannot happen next year as some people have theorised; it will take longer than that. However, we are actively involved in this conversation (satellite IoT and 5G initiatives) and part of our mission to create a truly interconnected world.
Increasing LEO mega-constellations are expected to mark a new dawn in satellite connectivity. How do you think this will play out with other operators in the industry?
Looking at the growth and data prediction worldwide, you will realise that there needs to be more networks to match the ever-growing demand. In the end, it does not matter if you are a fibre, mobile, GEO, MEO or LEO operator because, with all of these combined, there won’t be enough capacity to satisfy the future demand for connectivity. The real question for the various operators then becomes; who will serve what market?
The first decision we made at Avanti when we first noticed this proliferation was that we wanted to do two things. Firstly, we wanted to optimally utilise our capacity to serve as many regions and customers as possible. Secondly, we want to explore how we can build partnerships with other satellite operators, to continue growing our business heritage and ensure we deliver the best services to our customers. Ultimately, for most businesses, it won’t matter where your satellite orbits; what matters is that customers are satisfied with your services.
No single satellite operator covers the entire world or customer segment. LEO operators like Starlink will focus on consumer broadband and developing models that deliver these services directly to homes. That model won’t play well, for instance, in Africa because that model simply does not exist in that region. That would, in turn, leave a gap in Africa which we will be happy to fill.
Secondly, operators like Inmarsat, who have a lot of pedigree serving the global maritime market, will continue serving that market. Therefore, it is doubtful to see new entrants, for instance, OneWeb, moving into that market segment.
It then becomes more plausible that the new entrants will focus on smaller segments in select countries or regions. Realistically, it will take the new LEO operators some 5-7 years to develop networks big enough to compete in multiple geographies. However, we will witness stiff competition in some segments, including consumer broadband, which, in the long run, means better service delivery to the consumers.
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