MzansiSat, which has its origins in the Stellenbosch-based StellSat, wants to launch South Africa’s first-ever geo-stationary satellite in a private public partnership that will see the government retaining 20% of the payload for its own security needs.
The satellite, orbiting at 35 000 km above sea level, would service the entire country – especially remote areas where there is no business model for telecommunications companies to roll out high speed internet – while providing a technical footprint over a third of the globe: the entire continent and the Middle East.
Currently almost all South Africa’s satellite needs are outsourced – something that is both expensive and also potentially dangerous for South African National Defence Force (SANDF) operations if the military cannot guarantee real time secure satellite links to those parts of Africa where its troops are deployed.
MzansiSat’s chief technical officer Bernard Greyling explained that “we provide the military with the capacity to for secure communication anywhere in Africa and the surrounding oceans.”
The satellite will have 76 transponders; 48 on the Ku-band and 28 on the C-band. The latter is much more resistant against weather, while the Ku-band provides higher data feeds of up 16 megabits/s to a small dish, much like DStv is fed to local subscribers.
The bulk of the payload will be for commercial use, in effect subsidising the 20% that the military gets ring fenced for its own use. All the state will have to pay for is the terrestrial eco-system to send and receive information.
“We will also provide the military with a steerable beam so that they can ensure pinpoint satellite coverage and communication during specific operations,” said Greyling.
The idea is to create a public private partnership with the state, whereby the state will be receiving 51% of the revenue from the commercial operation while getting autonomy over 20% of the payload for its own use.
For the last 10 years though, that’s as far as the idea’s gone. Greyling believes though that the time is right, with the advent of Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration and the president’s appeal for business to invest in the country to create jobs, for this proposal to finally see the light of day.
“The transformative power of the internet is critical to the upskilling and development of this country. This project allows connectivity to be rolled out to some of the most remote parts of this country, because the simple fact of this technology is that if you can see the sky you’re connected.”
MzansiSat estimates that 80% of its commercial model will be taken up by existing telecommunications companies buying bandwidth which they can then beam out traditionally through their existing networks at a fraction of the price of setting up more infrastructure outside of the current high-speed networks in South Africa’s urban nodes.
Individuals too might just to install their own dishes and service their homes through Wi-Fi. The technology to receive the signal is much the same as satellite TV, even the dishes are the same, said Greyling, the installers – of which there is an existing countrywide industry – only have to point the dishes in a different direction.
MzansiSat was at the Africa Aerospace and Defence 2018 exhibition at Waterkloof last month in a bid to reach out to government – and the various arms of the SANDF; army, navy and air force – to get them to tell them what their needs are in terms of secure satellite communication.
“Our primary concern is to better understand the ecosystem in which we will integrate a secure telecommunication solution and where we can be of strategic utility for the government’s security concerns.”
The go-ahead rests on two legs; signing a public-private partnership and then getting the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services to make the necessary filing with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
When that happens, he said, South Africans can expect to have total internet coverage anywhere in the country within three years from the signing of the agreement, at R25 a gigabyte – from the telecommunications companies themselves.
Hoping to receive public sector buy-in to launch their first satellite – MzansiSat-1 – into space and debut their offering to the African market in 2022, MzansiSat is, in the words of MzansiSat Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Bart Cilliers, ready to go. “The biggest challenge we face is securing the legislative and political approval we need to launch the satellite. Once this box is ticked, superfast, super-cheap satellite internet offering competition-shattering pricing and military grade encryption can be a reality, ensuring greater access to technology and the opportunities that come along with it.”