On the 29th of March, 2022, the Russian army assailed the streets of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, leaving blackened wreckages and dead bodies. Due to the attack, the city’s 24 cell towers were knocked down, throwing the city offline and preventing traumatized survivors from communicating with their loved ones who were unsure of their safety. But two days after, the city and its neighbourhood were back online with help from Elon Musk through his Starlink satellite. Engineers had mounted the Starlink’s receiver to a mobile base station on the edge of Irpin whose fibre-optic connection and power had been severed and attached to a generator. 

The above incident reveals the power of next-gen satellite internet services and how its high-speed internet from the sky could be a powerful way to provide connectivity to people or populations suffering the privations of war, authoritarian governments, and those in remote areas with little or no internet connectivity.

Nigeria belongs to the latter, and in a tweet on Friday, Elon Musk announced the satellite internet service launched by SpaceX, his space exploration company, has been approved in the country, making it the first African country to host this disruptive internet provider in Africa. Its launch in Nigeria has been in the works since 2021. 

Over 200 million citizens still face poor internet service access. So in 2020, the country set out on a lofty ambition to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria with a minimum 25Mbps in urban areas and 10Mbps in rural areas, with coverage available to at least 90% of the population by 2025. However, the penetration has since been snail-paced, and as of October 2022, the country had not been able to achieve more than 45.55% penetration, about 7% growth from 38.49% in 2020. 

But last week, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, announced that the country has achieved 100% broadband coverage following the licensing and operation of SpaceX’s Starlink.

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How does Starlink work?

Starlink operates on a satellite internet service technology that has existed for decades. Instead of using cable technology, such as fibre optics in transmitting internet data, a satellite system uses radio signals. To put it simply, it operates in a similar way to your satellite TV companies (DSTV, GOTV). But, unlike these TV satellites, which are often situated far away in the sky, Starlink is installed in low Earth orbit. Because of this, more of it is needed to provide coverage. So instead of using a couple of large satellites, Starlink provides high-speed internet services using swarms of small satellites. Notably, its proximity to the earth makes its services faster, giving it an edge over other satellite service providers. 

As of December 2022, Starlink consists of over 3,300 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), but nearly 12,000 satellites are planned to be deployed, with a possible extension to 42,000. In December, the satellite internet provider announced having 1,000,000 active subscribers.

Competition in the Nigerian market. 

Starlink promises wider coverage, especially to rural and underserved areas, and a fast internet connection. These service offerings have remained a feat many players in the telecommunication industry in Nigeria are yet to fully achieve. 

Many players in the Nigerian telecommunications sector run cell tower-based services, an infrastructure lagging in many remote areas of Nigeria. So it is often difficult or impossible for users to operate their mobile service in remote areas without cell towers or a close ranged one. Starlink does not need this for its operations. 

Also, Starlink has an enviable edge in with fast internet. Reliable internet, even in urban areas is still hard to come by. This is about to change. Musk once tweeted that Starlink should be getting speeds of 300Mbps wherever it is installed. A Nigerian user tweeted getting something close to 238 Mbps download, 45 Mbps upload and 42 ms latency.

With this speed, Starlink would strike a significant impact in the telecoms industry. Nigeria’s average fixed broadband internet speed is slow, ranking 151st amongst 182 countries and recording a 20.97 megabits per second download speed, according to a report from U.S.-based internet speed analysis firm Ookla. Juxtaposing this with what Starlink has in countries of operation is wide. For example, in Puerto Rico and the US, the average internet download speed was 85.88 Mbps and 53.00 Mbps respectively. Starlink promises an average speed of 104Mbps in Nigeria.

However, some telecom players already provide access to light-speed internet, but just a handful of Nigerians enjoy it, possibly because of its cost. MTN’s HyNetflex (N25,000) supports up to 300Mbps download speed and connects up to 64 wireless devices simultaneously; its 5G router (50,000) delivers as high as almost 1Gbps in download speed with a connection of up to 32 devices.  ipNX offers up to 1Gbps speed to users, becoming the first player in the Nigerian market to offer such high speeds. FiberOne also offers fibre-optic internet speed of up to 500 Mbps with 30+ connected devices at ₦163,456 ($220) monthly and a ₦52,250 ($70) installation fee.

While many see Starlink’s arrival as a threat to players in the telecommunication sector, this may not be the case. It may be right to say its arrival would stir healthy competition in the sector in the short term, as each player tries to win the most users. 

However, a major argument against Starlink has been its prohibitive cost. To enjoy its services, Nigerians will pay $600 (N276,000) to acquire the setup hardware and a monthly subscription of $43 (N19,780). Starlink’s target market is people living in rural areas of the country, but economic indices show this is not feasible. 63% of persons living in Nigeria (133 million people) are multidimensionally poor. 72% of these people are concentrated in rural areas, while 42% are in urban areas. So it is safe to say those who can afford the products are concentrated in urban areas. And when compared to the cost of network providers aforementioned providing similar or greater internet strength, it may not be a big deal to some Nigerians, who are in dire need of such service for work.   

Environmental footprint. 

Putting satellites into low-Earth orbit could lead to problems. By design, Starlink are deployed into low-earth orbit where it will operate for a few years and eventually burn up. This increases the amount of aluminium and soot released, causing an imbalance in the earth’s atmosphere and exerting detrimental effects.

Also, there have been several near misses involving Starlink satellites, including near misses with China’s space station. Starlink’s satellites alone have been involved in about 1,600 close encounters between two spacecraft every week. This is catastrophic for space missions.

However, the satellite internet provider has been making efforts to identify and mitigate some of its environmental footprints. 

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