Satellite to fill connectivity gap?

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The communications department encourages connectivity providers to use the technology, but how viable is it?The Department of Communications is proposing a policy asking national electronic communications network services licensees to deploy satellite infrastructure to provide the network.

Communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri gazetted the proposal this month, saying satellite technology could promote connectivity: “Limited availability of frequencies in many metropolitan areas has become a critical problem which cannot be downplayed if the objectives of making services available to our people are to be met.”

According to the gazette notice, the department wants businesses to use satellite technology to provide connectivity and broadcast capability, while “we await the spectrum to be freed by broadcasting digital migration”.

Gateway Communications group COO Mike van den Bergh says the company is cautiously positive about the announcement. “It shows the DOC understands there is a place for satellite technology locally.”

He says the technology can definitely be used to make up for the lack of infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

Department of Science and Technology (DST) strategy co-ordinator Val Munsami says the department has a database of about 60 companies that offer space services – many of them in the ICT industry.

The strategy is derived from the DST`s 10-Year Innovation Plan, which includes space science and technology as one of the five “grand challenges”.

Is it viable?

Most of the satellites used for communications or broadcasting globally are housed in geostationary orbit just above the equator, says Johan Lourens, head of the department of electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Stellenbosch.

He says there are a large number of satellites in orbit there, and there is little or no room left for new devices. “SA does not really play in that space at all. We use primarily medium or low-earth-orbit satellites.”

He says medium earth satellites are being used for telecoms. However, they require a network of devices, which could make the technology particularly expensive. “Low-earth-orbit satellites are of no use in the broadcasting or telecoms industries,” he adds.

According to Lourens, SA primarily rents satellite technology from international players. “As far as I know, SA does not own any orbiting satellite technology.” He says it is extremely expensive to launch satellites into geostationary orbit, roughly 35 000km into space.

He says the university used to work with government in a satellite development programme, but government pulled the funding to start its own space agency.

Government strategy

Parliament is currently considering the SA National Space Agency Act, which will create a Space Agency and Space Council, to encourage and regulate the commercial exploitation of space by South Africans.

The National Assembly is pushing the law despite not yet having seen SA`s space policy or strategy, which is still under development. It is hoped the documents will be published at the Africa Aerospace and Defence 2008 show in Cape Town in September.

The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for policy and the Department of Science and Technology for strategy.

The draft National Space Science and Technology Strategy notes SA has a rich space heritage and has been involved in the sector since the dawn of the space age 50 years ago. It also has space facilities and “operational centres of excellence”, including a possible space rocket launch facility in the Overberg and a satellite integration facility at Grabouw, both in the Western Cape.

It happened before

SA has tried to enter the space launch and satellite business once before, as an outgrowth of the apartheid state`s nuclear weapons programme. This saw SA assemble four intermediate-range ballistic missiles – and test fire three. The fourth is on display at the SA Air Force Museum in Pretoria.

The programme`s proponents suggested a civilian space launch venture after then-president FW de Klerk ended the nuclear project. However, SA`s lack of satellite launch experience, as well as competitive and diplomatic pressure on president Nelson Mandela`s government, caused the business to be canned in late 1994.

In 2003, the ballpark figure of the international cost of launching a satellite with an expendable vehicle was around $30 000 for a kilogram of payload.

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