Vice President, Sales, Africa at YahClick, Mr. Michael Brown, in this interview with Emma Okonji, speaks on the importance of satellite broadband services for home and businesses, especially in unserved regions. Excerpts:
Every year we talk about connectivity in Africa, but the challenge is that there is too much concentration on the urban areas with so much neglect on the rural areas where services are also needed. How can this be addressed?
Our offerings are available to the rural areas and our packages can be accessed both in the rural and urban areas because it is satellite-based with wider coverage and faster connectivity speed. So our processes are consistent across any territory, and not just populated and urban areas and we focus on those underserved areas where the GSM and the fibre optic cable will not be able to penetrate.
Most Africans are very skeptical about satellite and would not want to jump at it with passion for various reasons, which include cost. What kind of awareness are you creating to reverse the thinking of Africans about high cost satellite connectivity?
There are number of issues, obviously on the social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and the likes that are ongoing about satellite connectivity and cost. But the truth is that we have opportunity to communicate to a lot of influential decision making people on this conversation. We recently had a conference and a two-day workshop in Abuja were we invited a number of different resellers and partners to come and look at our technology. So I think it’s an ongoing education process, and we will continue to educate the masses on the importance of satellite and on our cost effective satellite broadband services.
In your view, how can satellite-based internet and fibre optic-based internet service offerings address the connectivity challenges of Nigerians and Africans?
We working on a few projects, but not in Nigeria at the moment, but in other African territories where we are working with mobile operators around those very technologies. In some instances, they are gateway constraints, there is also regulatory constraints, and access to information constraints. From a technology point of view, we have all the capabilities, but we are obviously working on a number of projects in Africa, and hopefully shortly in Nigeria, as well, and we plan to announce something as a new possibilities soon.
How many satellites have you launched in Africa and what specific roles do they address?
We have launched three satellites so far, and the first was launched in 2010 which was Al Yah 1. Then in 2012, we launched the second satellite, Al Yah 2, and in 2018, we launched Al Yah 3. So each of the three satellites has increased speed, increases capacity and increased coverage. The third satellite enables us to cover large portions of Nigeria specific uncovered areas. So now we have full coverage. The farther you are from the core, the weaker it is for connectivity, and it is for this reason that we need spots of satellite beams and Al Yah3 allows us to do that to cover the whole country, as well as some of the surrounding areas, like Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast, down the west coast of Africa.
Tell us more about the three satellites. Are they standing in silos, or connected to one another, and which of them is targeted at African countries?
They all have their orbital slot, and satellite rotates, so they all operate separately. Al Yah 2 and Al Yah 3 are specifically targeted at African countries.
What is the advantage of satellite broadband connectivity over terrestrial optic fibre broadband connectivity?
The advantages are numerous. First of all satellite internet connectivity has instant connectivity but terrestrial fibre optic connectivity is limited to where the cellular signal is, which is where the fibre cable is laid. Like, I said earlier, there is no other mechanism that connects to the internet like satellite. Again, the fact that you have this constant connection with the satellite beam, giving 99.9 per cent coverage, is huge advantage over fibre cable. Now if you have power outages on your cellular cables or cellular towers, and if you have the fibre cable cut, you will have not have connectivity, but satellite is always having 99.9 per cent uptime, and from a cost perspective, a mobile device from Apple and other device manufacturers, cost a lot but customers can get refurbished router for satellite internet connectivity that is as low as between $180 to $220, which can be modified for the neighbourhood environment.
How can the satellite services that you offer, help to bridge digital divide in Nigeria and other African countries?
I think the best example of how satellite is helping to bridge digital divide in Nigeria is the example of our rural school environment initiative that seeks to provide connectivity to schools in rural communities where there is no connectivity to the internet, and to online search engines. Through that initiative, which we had with the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), we will be rolling out connectivity services to the schools and territories and make them Wi Fi enabled. The essence is to provide connectivity to the schools that will enable pupils and students have access to information and communicate with the outside world. The connectivity we are taking to schools will help them have access to mobile and web-based apps that drive the world nowadays, be it commercial apps like Amazon or Jumia or Konga.
So, that in itself is bridging digital divide and providing universal access to internet services. Whether you are a reseller of products on the platform or buyer, without internet you will never have connectivity in a rural area. Like I mentioned earlier, we have solutions in some of those areas that we have partners with solar type solutions, where there is no electricity for power generation for the use of their satellites. No other technology can do that, and we are very proud of it.
What are some of the challenges in providing satellite connectivity services to the people, especially those in rural communities?
The practical realitiesis that satellite is not a mobile solution, but a fixed solution that must come with a fixed router, and that is how our solution works. I think in the same vein, the top end devices are expensive and then there is the affordability cost, which is not a Nigerian problem, but a global problem, and particularly the African problem.
Current statistics show that about 60 per cent of global population do not have access to internet connectivity. How does YahClick see this as an opportunity to make internet available to the world, including Nigerian citizens?
The global statistics show to a large extent, the essence why we exist as a business to connect people, predominantly in the unserved and underserved areas. Terrestrial and fibre connectivity are expanding, but there will continue to be territories and geographical regions that do not have internet connectivity, due to practical commercial implications, geographical, political, regulatory, among others. So, to solve 60 per cent of the world’s connectivity challenges, I don’t think it is purely a YahClick problem. However, it is the reason we exist to connect the underserved and the unserved and there is no other connectivity mechanism that can connect the world like YahClick
YahClick has been present in several NigeriaCom annual events in Lagos. To what extent can the annual events impact on the industry?
So, I think it is very important to have a presence in events like NigeriaCom, which is an annual event organised by Informa Tech, and I see it as an opportunity for us to present our service partners, which is important part of our commercial model. Last year, we announced Zinox Technologies and Zeta-Web Technologies as our partners in Nigeria, and we will be announcing more partners in the next few months and we will introduce them at next year’s NigeriaCom. So, first of all, it is important for us to be relevant and to be visible to our competitors, and to those people that we collaborate with as well. We are a serious industry player and we are committed to the country. So we think we are contributing to the bigger Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry players that were present at this year’s NigeriaCom event.
African markets generally are emerging markets, with large population of people that are low income earners, but they need connectivity. How will YahClick make this possible, given the perceived high cost of satellite broadband services that you offer?
The perceived high cost satellite-based internet service is not just a Nigerian or African reality, but a global reality, because the cost prices on connectivity are driven by fundamental economic principles. So if you put up a cellular tower in a highly densely populated area, people will begin to imagine the revenue that will be generated, but the cost to sell those services is dramatically lower than providing coverage in a rural area that is 150 kilometres away from the nearest signal. So in cost issues, we don’t compete in urban areas against fibre and densely populated GSM terrestrial networks. Our focus is on the underserved. In other words, we compete in those peripheral environments where the GSM signal is weak and where fibre optic broadband players have not penetrated yet. So the fact that Nigeria has unlimited satellite broadband connectivity packages starting at N70,000 per month, cannot be said to be expensive, when compared with the cost of GSM and fibre optics internet connectivity.
There is this curiosity about why you use the KA band for broadband transmission instead of the KU band. Is it an Africa business model, or a general model for your company?
We use KA band globally in all the territories we operate, which is linked to the technical engineering side that makes it more cost effective and more efficient on a particular spectrum. So the KA band is more affordable and cost effective, and it is more efficient to penetrate.
You have competitors in the market that are also providing same services that you offer. So what really stands you out in the business?
We are unique in all our dealings and we select service partners and channel partners from each territory that understand the local environment where we operate. We are a global operator, and we are African operator, offering the same technology across multiple territories across African countries. But very importantly, we select local businesses, and it is very simple because local businesses understand the realities on ground. They speak the local language and understand all the hidden things that foreign companies may probably don’t know about, and that is exactly why we use local businesses.
So based on your experience with local businesses, how will you describe the business opportunities in Nigeria?
Our business experience in Nigeria is very good and we are very happy about that. The Nigerian territory for us right now is one of our continuous growing markets, through a combination of both the private and the public sector. So we do a lot of business with government through the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), which is really good for our growth. At the same time, our various service partnership models like business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) are ongoing. So with the launch of our Al Yah 3 satellite, and our new price plans, we see continuous growth in our business and Nigeria is a very good commercial area for us in Africa.
What in your view is the adoption rate of satellite in Africa, where we have more growth and demand in data than in voice connectivity?
Adoption rate of satellite connectivity is still low in Africa because of the penetration of GSM in the urban areas. Video clips today can go viral because so many people have mobile devices. We operate broadband connectivity for the homes and offices and our satellite solution is not a mobile solution, but a fixed connectivity solution to a particular area and so in itself, decreases the numbers of sales. Satellite connectivity is a bit more expensive than an entry level phone or prepaid top solution. Again, the unserved and underserved areas don’t have the populace, and the human population matters. So ours is a niche market, and we will never say never or relent in our service offerings. Right now, the focus is not on high density urban areas where we have to compete aggressively with the incumbents. It is more around the unserved and underserved areas where there is little or no connectivity.
Is there any government regulatory policies that are hindering the growth of your services in Nigeria?
No, there are no known policies in the country that is hindering our growth plan. I think Nigeria in particular, we have not had any policy or regulatory challenges. We have complied with all of them from our side and through our partners. So in terms of general regulatory ICT and communication policies, we have no issues with the regulators.