With the promise of high-speed internet from space, could Elon Musk’s Starlink program crowd out African cities?


Keynote speeches

  • Urban migration is increasing in Africa, and while this is not bad, the infrastructure in African cities cannot keep up. As a result, more Africans are trading the lush nature of the countryside for urban slums.
  • The Internet is fast becoming an infrastructure as important as electricity and healthcare. Today, studies show that companies go where the internet goes, and this has the potential to reduce unemployment.
  • Starlink plans to launch in Nigeria in Q4 2022. IIT has great potential for connectivity in underserved areas and can provide healthy competition for Nigerian telcos. But before that becomes a reality, some concerns need to be addressed.

In 2012, my father handed over his old Nokia 6070 to me and I believe it was a life-changing moment. Living in a rural community in Nigeria, the phone’s GPRS connection opened up a world of possibilities for me, with its tank-shaped, dark-sounding ringtones.

After exhausting all the physical novels I could find, I spent hours on Gutenberg.net sitting at home by a window or a tree in a building looking for the best reception spot. Not to mention games and songs from Sefan.ru or Waptrick.com. I’m trying to sound like a serious teenager here.

I wish I could say it was an experience for a typical teenager living in a rural community in Nigeria. I would like to say that I am lucky to have a feature phone that can connect to the Internet. After over 10 years and using a home fiber connection in Lagos, I can’t help but notice that I’m missing out on a lot.

You can imagine my excitement when I saw Elon Musk’s Tweet on May 27, 2022 that Starlink would be operational in Nigeria in Q4 2022. soil.

You might ask, what does satellite Internet have to do with my experience in the countryside years ago? Well, why don’t you read it.

Migration opportunities

Photo by Edmond Dantes:

Between 2012 and 2021, reports show that millions of Nigerians joined me and left their rural communities in search of better pastures in the big cities. Almost 53% of Nigeria’s population lives in cities, compared to 45% in 2012, Statista reports.

Fun fact: In 2007, the percentage of people living in cities exceeded the percentage of people living in rural areas for the first time in human history. At that time, Africa and Asia were the only continents where there were more villages than cities.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has predicted that Africa’s population will double between 2015 and 2050. This means an additional 1 billion people; According to the OECD, 750 million people will live in cities.

A closer look reveals that these people are looking for jobs, better healthcare and quality education. As long as the most prominent companies set up shop in big cities, high-quality hospitals and schools will move with them, and enterprising young people will follow.

In a sane world, this would not be a problem, but in sub-Saharan Africa, migration is happening faster than infrastructure can handle. Thus, 60% of our city dwellers live in slums.

You must have heard that the pandemic will bring drastic change with the rise of remote work. Companies like remote work are allowed Ulessonand TalentQL will leave the urban giants of Abuja and Lagos for less developed cities like Jos and Ile-Ife in 2020.

For various reasons, both companies moved back to Abuja and Lagos. If you want to replicate this move, you’ll have to deal with infrastructure allocation between said cities and the challenges that follow.

Since the turn of the millennium, more and more businesses are basing their entire business model on the Internet, determining where they set up shop. A study conducted at the University of Maryland in the US shows that even fast and cheap internet will reduce the unemployment rate.

So you can safely add Internet to essentials like electricity and quality healthcare that are the distinguishing features of urban areas. However, few Nigerian cities can boast of quality internet service to large companies or heavy internet users.

While some of Nigeria’s less urban states are trying to encourage telcos to build infrastructure in these areas and crowd out Lagos, my discussions with them point to one big question: Does it make business sense?

The question makes sense

Photo credit: Justin Raycraft (cc)

In 2020, the Ekiti state government in Nigeria announced plans to establish a hub away from Lagos that would boost a tech ecosystem. He slashed tolls, reduced the fees typically charged to telecom companies to build fiber infrastructure and planned what he called a knowledge zone.

According to information, MTN has received permission from the government to lay 160 km of fiber optic cable around the city. Despite these developments, there were still some concerns. To understand them, you should read this article on how the Internet works in Africa.

If you have stubbornly refused to click on that article, let me wrap it up as quickly as possible. The Internet is powered by a huge network of fiber cables laid under the ocean and connected to all the major continents of the world.

After former Journalist Cleo Abram pointed out at Vox, I realized that the language we use for the Internet doesn’t really sell how it works. When you hear words like upload, download and cloud, you might think that the Internet is in the sky rather than a bunch of computers connected to a giant cable network.

Fiber optic cable travels at the speed of light, so computers can communicate faster than any other medium. The problem is that these fiber-optic cables are expensive, costing between $3,000 and $50,000 to run 1 km. The length of the MainOne cable is 14,000 km, so do the math.

In cities, 1km of fiber optic cable can serve several buildings simultaneously and provide a quick return on investment, but in sparsely populated areas, that 1km will reach fewer buildings. The closer together high-quality homes are, the better for telecommunications companies.

Without businesses and entrepreneurs, most infrastructure providers would not want to move beyond the juicy parts of Lagos, Abuja and others. Without these infrastructures, there would be no business and no entrepreneurs, well, you get my point.

But what can help break this cycle?

This is where Satellite Internet comes in

A telecommunications company, for example, after deploying fiber in Nigeria, will need fresh capital to deploy in Ghana. Ideally, a company with enough orbiting satellites could serve Nigeria and Ghana without spending more money. I say “ideal” because things rarely go smoothly.

Satellites use radio waves to communicate with the earth. Standard satellites must be 36,000 km above the planet, but signals are slow to reach Earth. Therefore, satellite Internet service providers are lowering the Starlink orbit to 500 km.

In addition to sending signals to earth with radio waves, the company’s satellites also communicate with each other through light. Light travels faster through space than water, making it healthy competition with fiber.

According to this article, each Starlink satellite could cost $250,000 each.

Fun fact: Starlink has currently launched 2,300 satellites in Earth orbit and can currently serve 32 countries globally. The only significant reason for it to set foot in these countries is to obtain a license or set up customer support centers.

The GSMA reports that more than half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa still does not have access to the internet. There are a few systemic issues that I won’t touch on yet. In summary, Africa has many problems to solve.

If Starlink is launched, the company has the luxury of waiting for the millions of Africans who still don’t have smartphones to get online. In the meantime, its satellites can continue to serve other countries.

Concerns and benefits

Benefits

Reports suggest that Starlink can achieve speeds comparable to fiber optic links in the US and Canada. Imagine the possibilities of starting a high value palm oil refinery in any remote area of ​​Nigeria with Starlink connectivity.

While I’m not suggesting people abandon cities like Lagos, Accra or Nairobi, we can take a leaf from the ASEAN region in Asia, where countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have built their economies on their strengths.

If such opportunities are created in African cities, the need to migrate to more urban areas will decrease.

Another key part of Fast Internet that I haven’t mentioned is data centers. To oversimplify things, a data center brings that connection closer to you instead of sending data from Nigeria to Portugal via fiber cable. As a result of data centers in Africa, streaming services have greatly improved, especially in major cities.

Until now, most of Africa’s data centers were located in Lagos, Accra, Nairobi and Johannesburg. With satellite Internet, companies can install modular data centers in remote locations. In 2020, Microsoft introduced one such hub that gets Internet from Starlink.

This will be especially useful for organizations involved in humanitarian activities, mineral exploration or military expeditions that need cloud facilities.

Add that you can also use Starlink in vehicles (Recreational Vehicles); it’s not hard to see the appeal.

On top of all that, the benefits could translate into something that could reduce the migration of millions of teenagers in rural areas, like me in 2012, who don’t have access to the quality internet, education, and job opportunities found in big cities.

Local competition

While Starlink may threaten telecom companies, it can also provide healthy competition. If Starlink eventually encourages companies to leave congested African cities and set up shop in relatively remote areas, it opens up opportunities for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to follow suit.

Rather than concentrating people in one or two economic hotspots, they will spread out based on interests and economic opportunities. The data shows that better internet should provide quality healthcare and education in more parts of the continent.

However, we must note the concerns.

Concerns

Starlink requires thousands of satellites to be close to the ground and can cause environmental problems. Trees can interfere with their signals, and bad weather can slow down outages.

Trees and violent storms are prominent features of Africa. Anyone using Multichoice’s DStv or other cable services should notice a drop in quality when it rains.

Another major argument against Starlink is its price. At $110 (~₦70,000) for pre-order and $599 (₦390,000) for a complete kit with terminal, mounting tripod and Wi-Fi router, most Nigerians and Mozambicans may not be able to afford it.

Its premium service costs $2,500 (₦1.7 million) and a monthly subscription fee of $500 (₦350,000).

We found some hope on its website, though Nigerians can pre-order the Starlink for $99 (₦68,000). However, it is not clear if this is the only cost. We reached out to SpaceX for comment on these talking points, but had not yet heard back at press time.

In the meantime, let us know what you think of Starlink. Wow, that was long; I hope you found it useful.





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