On 28 July 2023, a groundbreaking achievement took place as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket successfully lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and deployed the world’s largest and heaviest communications satellite into geostationary orbit, some 36,000 km above Earth’s surface.1 This milestone marks a major leap in the quest to provide satellite internet connectivity that will cover nearly 80 per cent of the population across North and South America. Owned by EchoStar’s subsidiary Hughes Network Systems, the Jupiter 3 payload promises to bring much-needed internet access to remote and underserved regions in the Americas, as well as providing in-flight Wi-Fi service on board planes travelling across North and South America.2
Over the years, the number of satellites placed in the Earth’s orbit have increased from about 1,000 in 2013 to over 7,000 active satellites at the beginning of 2023.3 The majority of these satellites occupy low earth orbit (LEO), with an altitude of 2,000km or less. Low orbital placement is widely acknowledged as key to achieving widespread internet connectivity. Proximity to the Earth’s surface enables very low latency and constellations of satellites working together can cover large areas simultaneously.4
Lowering financial barriers
A number of issues have hindered satellites from becoming the preferred mode of internet access over terrestrial networks. Two prominent challenges are high latency (often synonymous with satellites placed in geostationary orbit) and the high cost to end users, especially in developing countries such as Nigeria where over 46 per cent of the population resides in rural areas with limited internet access due to lack of sufficient terrestrial fibre infrastructure.5 A further breakdown indicates that 77 per cent of these rural residents have no access to the internet.6 Satellites have traditionally been expensive to build, launch and operate, resulting in overhead costs passed on to end users in the form of high subscription fees and costly terminal equipment. This financial barrier often prevents people in rural communities from affording satellite internet services. Even for terrestrial-based networks, service providers have been reluctant to invest in infrastructure for underserved areas due to the limited spending capacity of these communities.
To address the lack of internet access in unserved and underserved areas, Nigeria established a Universal Service Provision Fund (USP Fund), enabled by the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 and the Universal Access and Universal Service Regulations 2007.7 These frameworks allow the government to utilise part of the annual operating levy paid by telecommunications operators to fund projects aimed at extending services, including internet access, to these communities. Nigeria’s USP Fund is mainly made up of one per cent of the total annual operating levy paid by all telecommunications companies and collected by the Nigerian Communications Commission. It is acclaimed as one of the largest in the world and, while its programmes such as the Rural Broadband Initiative and Accelerated Mobile Phone Expansion have seen some success, challenges, including right-of-way issues, vandalism and equipment theft, have hindered its goal of achieving 100 per cent penetration.8
However, the steady deployment of satellite constellations, especially in LEO, present a compelling opportunity to overcome these obstacles and open up new possibilities for more affordable internet provision in Nigeria. Reusable rocket launchers have significantly lowered the cost of satellite transportation to orbit, reducing overheads for satellite operators and potentially translating to more affordable internet services, even for rural communities.9
To aid efforts in bridging the digital divide, in 2021 NigComSat, a government-owned entity, announced plans to launch two new communications satellites in 2023 and 2025 to replace the existing NigComSat-1R when it reaches its end of life in 2026.10 The planned deployments are not reported to be financed through the USP Fund. However, the fund can be utilised in other connected ways such as supporting the local manufacturing of terminal equipment and the establishment of solar-powered hubs in rural areas through which people can access satellite internet services. By utilising the USP Fund in this manner, Nigeria can make significant strides in bridging the digital divide.
Direct to customer services
While space segment operators are not permitted to provide last-mile services, they can supply wholesale bandwidth to internet service providers (ISPs) who can then offer connectivity to end users. However, these operators are not prohibited from obtaining operational licences, such as an ISP licence, and frequency spectrum to provide last-mile services directly. According to the NCC’s guidelines, any entity intending to provide internet services using the satellite infrastructure of a space segment operator must be licensed by the NCC.11 This means that a space segment operator can establish a separate entity registered in Nigeria, which can then obtain the necessary licence to provide internet services to end users. SpaceX has already taken this route, securing landing rights for its satellites to beam over Nigeria and obtaining an ISP licence through its locally registered entity, Starlink Internet Services Nigeria Limited, to directly provide internet services to end users.12
Satellites are now being used as primary means of connectivity – a shift from their traditional role as backup connectivity options during terrestrial network outages.13 This transformation marks a significant step in making satellite technology a viable solution for internet connectivity in Nigeria. By leveraging the USP Fund in the manner suggested above, the Nigerian government and ISPs can work towards providing internet connectivity to every corner of the country, circumventing the issues currently impeding terrestrial network deployment. With the strategic utilisation of the USP Fund and the right regulatory measures, satellite internet connectivity has the potential to transform the lives of millions in underserved and unserved areas in Nigeria, bringing them into the digital age and fostering inclusive economic and social development.