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Facebook and Eutelsat launch satellite initiative to boost internet access across Africa

Some of the most remote parts of Africa are to be given internet access under a partnership agreement between social networking web site Facebook and French satellite internet operator Eutelsat.

The companies have signed a multi-year agreement with fixed satellites operator Spacecom to utilise the entire broadband payload on a future Spacecom ‘AMOS-6’ geostationary satellite. The companies said they plan to build “a dedicated system comprising satellite capacity, gateways and terminals”.

Eutelsat said the service, which is scheduled to start up in the second half of 2016, will see the satellite enable broadband access to large parts of Western, Eastern and Southern Africa. According to the terms of the agreement, the capacity will be shared between Eutelsat and Facebook.

“The capacity is optimised for community and direct-to-user internet access using affordable, off-the-shelf customer equipment,” Eutelsat said.

Eutelsat and Facebook will each deploy internet services “designed to relieve pent-up demand for connectivity from the many users in Africa beyond the range of fixed and mobile terrestrial networks”, Eutelsat said. “Satellite networks are well suited to economically connecting people in low to medium density population areas and the high throughput satellite architecture of AMOS-6 is expected to contribute to additional gains in cost efficiency.”

“Connectivity is essential in Africa and is a challenge in remote areas," said telecoms expert Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "Facebook was exploring ways to use satellites to beam internet in places lacking the ICT infrastructure. Using satellites is only part of the answer as the web still needs to connect to PCs and devices with proper cables or Wi-Fi. It is clear that internet penetration is key to the development of Africa. From e-learning to e-health, Africa should benefit from this initiative and it is not by chance that it is done in partnership with a charity”.

According to Eutelsat, the move will enable it to step up its broadband activity in sub-Saharan Africa initiated with existing satellites to serve professional users.

In addition, Eutelsat said it is establishing a new UK company based in London to “steer its African broadband vision and business”. Eutelsat said the company will be led by Laurent Grimaldi, the founder and former chief executive officer of telecoms carrier firm the Tiscali International Network, and “will focus on serving premium consumer and professional segments”.

Facebook said the partnership followed its launch two years ago of ‘Internet.org’, an initiative involving technology leaders, non-profit organisations and local communities to “accelerate the rate of connectivity by addressing the physical, economic and social barriers that are keeping people from getting online”.

“This satellite system represents one of many technology investments to enable cost-effective broadband access to unconnected populations,” Facebook said. The company said it plans to work with local partners across Africa to encourage usage of both satellite and terrestrial telecoms capacity to deliver services to rural areas.

A joint report published in 2012 by the World Bank and African Development Bank, with support from the African Union, said “information and communications technology innovations are delivering home-grown solutions in Africa, transforming businesses, and driving entrepreneurship and economic growth”. The report said that, at the start of 2012, Africa’s mobile telephony market was “bigger than either the EU or the US.

According to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), “research shows that developing economies grow 1.38% for every 10% that broadband access is increase”. The IFC said it has already led a group of development institutions in providing $260 million in financing to help launch a satellite system that will provide affordable broadband access to landlocked and remote developing countries near the Equator.

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