1 December 2011

Nigeria and the Quest for Communications Satellite

With the planned launch of Nigeria's communications replacement satellite called NigComSat-1R from China on December 19, 2011, by the Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NigComSat), Emma Okonji examines why the first satellite that was launched in 2007 failed in orbit, the renewed efforts for a successful launch of another satellite and its economic benefits.

Passion for Communications Satellite

Established by government in 2006, the Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NigComSat) has a strong passion to build and launch communications satellites through which it will serve both government and the public in delivering communications services and applications through the lease of transponders to businesses in Nigeria and beyond.

In 2007, one year after it was established, NigComSat, led by its Chief Executive Officer, Timasaniyu Ahmed-Rufai, took the first bold step to launch a communications satellite for Nigeria, called NigComSat-1.

Nigerians were glad at heart when they saw the efforts of Ahmed-Rufai and his technical team culminated into success when the satellite was eventually launched into space in 2007 from China, by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), builders of NigComSat-1.

NigComSat staff and Nigerians who knew the benefits of communications satellite were walking shoulder-high shortly after its successful launch, expecting that few months later, Nigerians would be able to use the satellite in monitoring communications and broadcasting activities as well as security surveillance.

Unknown to everyone, there was a looming danger surrounding the satellite in orbit, which eventually struck few months after its successful launch, a situation that led to the collapse of the vital functions of the satellite and it was de-orbited on November 10, 2008. In technical parlance, de-orbiting is a process of shifting the satellite from its original position in space to a distant position, from where it will eventually go into extinction.

The essence of de-orbiting is to maintain the satellite space for a replacement and to avoid situations where the malfunctioning satellite will be sending wrong signals to the ground control stations.

Why the Initial Satellite Failed

Addressing stakeholders' conference in Lagos on the planned replacement satellite, Ahmed-Rufai explained why the initial satellite failed and the need to launch several other satellites into space.

According to him, the satellite was successfully launched in 2007, but few months after its launch, there was a spark in space, and the route of the spark was close to Nigeria's satellite. The spark was so severe that it instantly cut off one of the strings carrying vital communications information flow, a situation that rendered the entire satellite useless since it could no longer function as a result of the cut that was caused by the high degree spark.

With the colossal damage, we had to de-orbit the satellite and prepare for another satellite launch.

The failure rate of satellites in space according to Ahmed-Rufai, is beyond human control and could be devastating, and that is why most countries have several satellites in space, having experienced satellite failure in the past.

China has over 12 communications satellites in space and they are still building because that is the direction of the future growth in global digital revolution. Nigeria is not the only country that has suffered satellite loss, and some countries had same experience after the Nigeria's bitter experience.

Assurances of the Success of NigComSat-1R

At the recently concluded 3-day stakeholders' conference on NigComSat-1R in Lagos, Ahmed-Rufai spoke extensively on the planned launch of a replacement satellite and its' state of readiness for launch.

According to him, the replacement satellite known as NigComSat -1R "has been fully integrated and every necessary performance test has been carried out on the satellite. It had already been moved to its launch site in central China, from where it would be launched on December 19, 2011.

The replacement satellite, according to Rufai, is a Hybrid Satellite, since it will function beyond communications, providing navigational services for the aviation and maritime industries as well.

Vice President of CGWIC, Mr. He Xing, who flew from China to attend the stakeholders' conference and exhibition on NigComSat-1R, also confirmed the readiness of NigComSat-1R for the December 19 launch. Xing said the replacement satellite would be launched on the DH-4 platform of CGWIC.

He explained that the ground control of the satellite would be carried out in Nigeria by Nigerian engineers that have undergone intensive training in China in recent times.

"We have provided training for over 60 engineers sent by the management of NigComSat, and they are capable of controlling the satellite from the ground station in Nigeria, and providing services to Nigerians and Africans. With over 50 years in the practice of space technology, and with the successful launch of several satellites from China by CGWIC, we are optimistic that we are going to have a successful launch of NigComSat-1R this month," Xing said.

China, he said, would continue to give support to Nigeria in developing its space technology and CGWIC would always provide back-end support to NigComSat, to enable it provide world-class satellite services to Nigerians as well as to people in other African countries.

Economic Benefits

Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson, in her key note address at the stakeholders' conference on NigComSat-1R, said "the satellite will no doubt add value and improve the fast growing ICT landscape in Nigeria especially in the areas of broadband internet connectivity.

Nigeria is a hurry to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and only recently, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) rose up from its yearly meeting in Geneva, Switzerland with a marching order to its member countries to make broadband connectivity available in at least 40 percent of home holds by 2012.

Nigeria is a member of ITU, and will abide by the ITU decision by creating the enabling environment for broadband internet connectivity through adequate investment by the government and private sector. The planned launch of NigComSat-1R will address the issue of broadband availability and help Nigeria achieve its MDGs."

Ahmed-Rufai said that satellite television customers in the country and other parts of Africa, are currently getting programming contents through Direct To Home (DTH) providers, but explained that the communications satellite, when launched, would, support players in the Nigerian broadcast industry to aggregate hundreds of channels and deliver same directly to homes across the country.

The role of NigComSat-1R, according to Rufai, is to foster the growth of broadcasting industry as it will allow broadcasting concentrate on the provision of quality content in order to realise maximum revenue.

He said the satellite would also act as open doors to attract foreign direct investments into the country.

Technical Manager of NigComSat, Inuwa Danladi Alhaji who presented a paper on Homeland Security Challenges, gave several reasons why Nigerians and the Nigerian government should embrace communication satellite for national development.

According to him, NigComSat-1R would provide good security for Nigerians and Africans; enable better flow of information from satellite to multi-channels; improve interconnectivity among the military (Army, Navy and Air force); enhance communication across the Police force; provide easy access to information seekers; and check disaster management and control, among others.

"Considering that delivering basic healthcare and education to remote and sparsely populated regions was almost an insoluble challenge, the launch of NigComSat-1R will provide the much needed bandwidth to take these services across the country. The satellite will facilitate NigComSat secondary school NET project, which is intended to connect selected 10 secondary schools in each state of the federation to a central point.

It will also enhance virtual campuses in remote locations, which shall be connected to other locations," Inuwa said.

The Role of NigComSat-1R

NigComSat-1R, according to Ahmed-Rufai, is a bend pipe satellite that has a wide area of coverage, provides higher bandwidth, has a long life span of 15 years and is best for broadcasting and multicasting.

The launch of NigComSat-1R will ensure that Nigerians have access to quality communication without necessarily paying exorbitant fees for the opportunity and redress the long term damage to the Nigerian broadcasting environment created by years of technological dumping and inconsistent approach to signal and content distribution by practitioners.

NigComSat-1R will be able to achieve this feat through Payloads like Ka-band, which employs spot beams that are distributed for trunking and broadcast purposes respectively; Ku-band with14 operational Channels; C-band with 4 transponders; and the L-band with 2 transponders.

NigComSat-1R intends to foster the growth of the broadcasting industry and will serve as an Internet back- bone that will enable Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to buy data on a complete bundle to be transmitted through NigComSat-1R.

The successful launch of the Satellite will allow broadcasters concentrate on the provision of quality content in order to realise maximum revenue. Also, the expected low rates of bandwidths from NigComSat-1R will attract broadcasting and telecommunications organisations, both local and foreign.

Future Trends in Broadcast Technology

In a paper presentation on the future trends in broadcast technology, using communications satellite, Director General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Yomi Bolarinwa said nobody can accurately predict the future, especially in broadcasting where technological developments is a major driving force.

According to him, the possibilities for creating new services have been enabled by three technologies namely Digitalisation, Computerisation and Packet-based Switching and the three technologies have also created conducive atmosphere for synergy between the hitherto divergent communication platforms.

These technologies are the driving force behind the Internet Protocol (IP) revolution; the convergence process and emergence of Next Generation Network (NGN) technologies, which in turn have reshaped and restructured different communication sectors and markets.

On Digitalisation, Bolarunwa said the development from analogue to digital is by far the most fundamental precondition for any other technological changes we have witnessed in recent years.

Digitalisation enables the integration of different services in the same network and enables synergy to be reaped in the whole value chain of service- production, distribution and consumption.

On Computerisation, he said "the digital code is enjoying a renaissance of late because of the process of receiving, storage and retrieval capacity of computers".

The role of computers in production and consumption parts is quite obvious.

For the Packet-based Switching, he maintained that Packet switched technologies have had an important role in the more efficient utilisation of the available resources in different network infrastructures and the creation of platforms enabling multi-service delivery in the same network, enabling real convergence.

Speaking on convergence of technologies, Bolarinwa said the term convergence eludes precise definition, but it is most commonly expressed as "the ability of different network platforms to carry essentially similar kinds of services, or the coming together of consumer devices such as the telephone, television and personal computer."

According to him, perhaps the most important impact of digitalisation on broadcasting was the phenomenon of convergence and it remained part of a broader trend of technology change that is blurring the distinction between all sectors in communications industry: the telecommunications, the Internet, and broadcast services.

NigComSat-1R, he said would provide the much needed platform for technology convergence, which he said, remained the future trend in global digital revolution. Nigeria, he added, needs communications satellite to harmonise its growing technologies, aimed at meeting its Millennium Development Goals and boosting economic development.

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