Six years in planning, two years in constructing the earth station, two weeks in final launch preparation, nine hours and 12 minutes for the separation of the Y1B satellite…SatellitePro ME speaks to the team leaders of Yahsat and launch partners, International Launch Services,on the fast-track satellite programme and the challenges ahead.
Yahsat’s CEO, Tareq Al Hosani is enthused in equal measure, when talking about the precision space engineering that was required to launch 6000 kgs of Y1B into a geostationary orbit, as he is about the cycles and trucks needed to transport the solutions to the end-user in remote corners of Africa and the Middle East.
With plans to accommodate an estimated half a million subscribers in three to five years, Al Hosani says his team has been preparing even as Y1B was being constructed at the EADS Astrium facilities in Toulouse, France.
“We now have a network of service providers on the ground and our team is geared to launch services in about 28 countries in a year and a half. We are hoping that by October 2012, we will launch our services commercially.”
Speaking at a round -table along with launch partners ILS, to celebrate the launch of Y1B, the overriding message was that phase 1 has just been completed with the launch of two satellites and the construction of the earth station, and the all-important commercial phase was about to begin.
We now have a network of service providers on the ground and our team is geared to launch services in about 28 countries in a year and a half
The challenges of infrastructure
Straddling the high-tech world of space engineering and the rudimentary nature of infrastructure in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, Al Hosani’s team is aggressively redefining the hitherto staid world of operating satellites.
“We are currently doing most of the ground work,” said Al Hosani about YahClick, the satellite broadband service for the Middle East, Africa, and South West Asia.
“We will be managing and monitoring the network and investing in the gateways. The service provider will be responsible for the installation of the user terminal as well as the billing services and managing the help desk. Our service providers have invested considerably to achieve this on the ground.
“We, on our part, are trying to ease the process by ensuring that we deploy our services in time. We will be operating in 28 different countries with service providers that currently number 30. With different regulations and varied levels of infrastructure in each of these countries, the deployment of services will be challenging. When you think of delivering terminals to the end user, you are probably thinking ships, trucks, trains… think also in terms of taxis and bicycles.”
On May 13, at the roundtable, there was no mistaking the mood at the Yahsat premises, a mere 19 days after a successful launch. While acknowledging that as satellite operators, they would be looking at future launches, Jassem Mohamed Al Zaabi, vice chairman of Yahsat and Mubadala ICT director, commenting on priorities said: “We are now focused 100% on commercial delivery. While we will look for growth opportunities, including launching more satellites, our priority number one is making sure our fleet of two satellites is 100% operational and they meet the business plan requirements, so that the shareholders expectations are met.
We are now focused 100% on commercial delivery. While we will look for growth opportunities, including launching more satellites, our priority number one is making sure our fleet of two satellites is 100% operational and they meet the business plan requirements
“Looking ahead our team will complete the final testing stage for Y1B to ensure that we are able to roll out satellite broadband connectivity successfully across the region through our YahClick service.”
YahClick to launch services in Nigeria
As I write this, YahClick is stirring things up in Africa. The Yahclick service was launched in Nigeria, with a pledge to reduce the cost of internet by 50%. It will be fascinating to follow Yahclick’s Nigeria-based service provider, Coollink, as it deploys terminals across Nigeria, within and beyond the capital city Abuja. To tell the complete story however, we would need to glimpse briefly into Yahsat’s relatively rapid rise to prominence as a significant player in the satellite industry in the region.
Frank McKenna, president of International Launch Services (ILS), brought us up to speed. “In 2006, Jassem invited me to visit him and he took the time to show me what the vision for the country was from a technological standpoint and what the potential accomplishments would be in five to ten years. We looked at not just the telecommunication sector, but the programme that was laid out for the UAE for the next 15 years. It is quite incredible that in a span of just six years, we have a state-of-the art earth station and two satellites in orbit.”
It is quite incredible that in a span of just six years, we have a state-of-the art earth station and two satellites in orbit
Reel story of Yahsat
A crisply edited film on YouTube titled A star is born will give the viewer a snapshot of the five years leading up to the launch of the first satellite Y1A, in early 2011. There are some telling moments that convey the sense of urgency that drove the project. With a seemingly impossible deadline of three-and-a-half years from design to delivery, contract negotiations with the Thales Alenia Space – EADS Astrium consortium were tough, admitted Al Zaabi.
“We weren’t easy customers,” he recalled. “When we refused to negotiate the ‘when’, the emphasis shifted to the ‘how’, “added Al Hosani. The film depicts the frantic pace with which the headquarters and earth station of Yahsat, spread over 12,000 square metres, 40 kms away from Abu Dhabi, came up in just two years. From wanting to address the Communications-on-the-move (COTM) needs of the army to potentially touching the lives of one billion people in more than 40 countries, the Yahsat management team in the words of vice chairman, Al Zaabi, was asking “for the moon”.
The “most affordable launch proposition”
As launch partners, ILS played its part by offering in McKenna’s words “the most affordable launch proposition in the industry”. He added: “Affordable space transportation is a critical issue in the industry and for projects such as Yahsat, what we have done over the last 15 years, is to improve the capability of the vehicle while maintaining an affordable value proposition that allows for larger satellites such as the six metric tonne Yahsat 1B satellite to be launched. Secondly, we invested in a dual processing capability at the launch base so there is flexibility to launch satellites as and when they are ready. We have satellites coming from five major factories and they feed into our base, and we launch approximately every 45 days.
This year, Proton will launch every month. “We are serving the heavy lift end of the market that is ideally suited for projects such as Yahsat and we are proud to have played a part in the successful launch that enables the Yahsat programme to move into the critical commercial phase.”
This time round there was no earthquake to stall the production of Y1B, as it did the production of Y1A. There was also no dramatic aborting of the launch just 4/10ths of a second before the boosters would have fired, again as it did in the case of Yahsat’s first satellite, Y1A. Despite the overt absence of drama, there were some delays considered inevitable in the satellite launch industry.
“Due to various factors, the launch date is a moving target,” observed Al Zaabi. “So transparency and teamwork is a priority when it comes to working towards a launch in a given window.”
A veteran of many such launches, McKenna added: “These are highly advanced technological processes. We are creating a space-based infrastructure. So in order to do what we do requires extreme amount of dedication and access to technical resources of the highest order. It is imperative to have open communication and trust with regard to problems that have to be resolved, schedules and so on. As a result of this teamwork, the launch on April 24 was a successful one.”
In April 2012, the launch of Yahsat’s second satellite, Y1B, was watched by a visibly moved Jassem Mohamed Al Zaabi, Tareq Al Hosani and the entire Yahsat team. “The moment I like to remember,” said McKenna when asked about the most anxious moment with Yahsat’s second satellite, Y1B, “ is the point in time when he spacecraft separated and was placed in a geo transfer orbit prior to being placed in its dedicated orbit space. Tareq and Jassem were there with the management team.
On hearing the news that the spacecraft had successfully separated, the degree of emotion and excitement and relief on Tareq’s face was memorable. There is a great deal of stress related to a project like this and the launch is a critical enabler to the commercial success of Yahsat.”
With a reported initial commitment of 61,000 terminals, Al Hosani believes, that YahClick will reach maximum capacity in markets such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and South Africa, within three years. The consumer package will start at a tantalising price of US$ 20 a month.
“Nigeria, are you ready?” – is the message on the website of Nigeria-based Coollink, one of the 30 service providers across the Middle East, Africa and South-Western Asia poised to sell affordable, high speed internet. Other partners include the mobile phone retailer Axiom, the Omani telecommunications company Nawras, and the South African operator Vox Telepreneur.
While the hunger for connectivity is beyond doubt across the region, Al Hosani’s team and YahClick service providers will have to tackle real issues of security and regulatory hurdles, among other challenges. The satellite industry, on its part, will also watch keenly as the Ka-band satellite goes through its paces across the coverage area.
For Al Hosani’s team, the stage has shifted from the cliff-hanger of a launch to the daunting task of supporting service providers as they offer affordable high-speed internet in some of the most challenging countries in the world.
- YahSat-1B Specifications
- Applications: Communications
- Orbit: GEO
- Orbital location: 47.5 deg East
- Operator: Al Yah satellite Communications Co.
- Coverage: Africa, the Middle East and SW Asia
- Contractors: EADS Astrium, Thales Alenia Space
- Platform: Eurostar E3000
- Launch partners: International Launch Services
- Launch mass: 6,050 (approx.)
- Mission life: +15 years
- Satellite mission: Y1B will deliver communications in Ka-band for both commercial and governmental uses
- Payload: 46 Ka-band transponders, 60 spot beams
- Payload power (end of life): 14 kW