Africa satellite stories Interviews

Sherif Azzabi, MD of RascomStar, on connecting Africa on a grassroots level

Bringing connectivity to parts of Africa where the terrain is inhospitable and infrastructure is minimal can be a major deterrent for operators.
An installation in progress in Cameroon for national telco and internet service provider Camtel.

Undaunted, and moving deeper into unfamiliar territory to offer that connectivity, is RascomStar-QAF. Managing Director Sherif Azzabi speaks to Paul Godfrey about the operator’s vision as a pan-African provider.

Libya’s dramatic return to the headlines in May 2019 wasn’t solely the result of factional disturbance or the breakdown of an uneasy militia truce. Rather, atrocious floods in the country’s southwest – among the most severe the region had ever seen – were wreaking devastation throughout the regional capital, Ghat, forcing over 2,500 families to leave their homes. The only hospital was entirely flooded, with main roads completely blocked, leaving the UN to estimate that 20,000 people were in urgent need of humanitarian support.

Yet one vital factor enabled aid to get through to the worst-hit areas and allowed relief workers to deliver a measure of damage control: the area’s digital connectivity remained unaffected, thanks to the Regional African Satellite Communication Company (RascomStar-QAF) – a major provider of satellite services to the whole of the African continent, and a business attempting to providing connectivity in some of the world’s most rugged and impenetrable terrain.

The Story of a ‘People’s Provider’

Imagine the sense of empowerment when an individual in one of the most remote places on Earth finds that he can connect with the rest of the world with a mobile phone.

Providing that connectivity is RascomStar’s mission. It’s a simple yet audacious quest that began with the goal of providing total coverage in C- and Ku- band and GSM connectivity in Africa. The roll-out was initiated by RascomStar-QAF, originally founded by governments in Africa and then registered as a private company in Mauritius and – now headquartered in Dubai – with the remit to implement an Africa-wide satellite project.

RascomStar claims to be one of the world’s first pan-African satellite operators with the launch of its satellite RQ1-R in 2010, covering the whole African continent with some spillover into parts of Europe and the Middle East. Based on the Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000 B3 platform, and with a life expectancy of 18 years, the satellite is fitted with twelve Ku-band and eight C-band transponders and provides services to telecom operators, large corporations and TV broadcasters.

While still a grassroots provider, the company’s services have evolved into offering a wider portfolio over the years, with integrated solutions including DTH services for TV broadcast in Ku, VSAT in C and Ku for private VPNs or internet (with active customers in 30 countries), WiFi access, and hybrid VSAT and GSM solutions.

Sherif Azzabi, Managing Director, RascomStar.

Driving the Changes

SatellitePro spoke to RascomStar Managing Director Sherif Azzabi, responsible since 2014 for driving the company’s highly challenging agenda.

“When the company began in 2003, the idea was to ensure connectivity across all parts of Africa, including providing communication to rural areas where there was no coverage at all. The major operators are obliged to provide coverage, but the challenges are so immense that some operators on the African continent prefer to pay the fines and penalties imposed on them for not offering their service in rural areas than actually go into those areas and provide connectivity.

“People simply cannot fathom the difficulties of offering connectivity in these remote areas. We are talking about regions where travelling to the nearest town or village takes four days. That’s where families would have to go to buy their household essentials, which means an eight- to ten-day round trip – but when you have connectivity, you can simply make a call and have those goods delivered collectively for the community in half of the time. Plus it’s not just the time involved; the terrain can be extremely inhospitable, and people generally will not have any means of transport available for carrying those goods – there are countless pictures of villagers balancing heavy goods on their heads, for example.

“So our first goal was to extend GSM services and/or fixed telephony over satellite in rural areas, where traditional fibre or microwave solutions are not economically feasible or sustainable, or even possible in some cases. In these areas, it is often impossible to lay cable; you face an enormous range of landscapes and every type of geographical challenge. We work with 45 African nations – thus we see every possible extreme of service challenge. But once connectivity is in place, it can make a huge social impact in these towns and villages. We always try to keep that original mission in mind.”

The Harsh Realities

On the one hand, RascomStar deals with highly sophisticated infrastructure connectivity in cities like Kinshasa and Abuja, and on the other, it also provides coverage to the hinterlands of Mali or Chad, with their age-old communities such as Timbuktu – for centuries, a metaphor for the ends of the Earth. Indeed, these are areas which, according to UNESCO’s Human Development Index (HDI), are in the bottom 20 in the world in terms of standards of living and access to basic utilities and resources.

These environments pose massive challenges when it comes to creating a functioning communications infrastructure. To handle these realities, Azzabi says RascomStar offers “end-to-end managed services, including the ground equipment and stations, so that we can be absolutely certain of providing coverage, no matter what the level of isolation is”.

“Our integrated rural solutions are developed by Viasat for the exclusive use of RascomStar, and we deliver a full telecom solution while partnering with local tower companies for solar power and towers,” he explains.

These initiatives mean that even the smallest towns and villages can become part of the world global community through internet access.

For example, RascomStar has developed a managed service for rural WiFi via satellite – villagers can access the internet by logging on to the nearest WiFi hotspot connected by VSAT. The ability to interact with the world at large, whether that means accessing information about education or farming techniques, or simply catching up on Facebook with people in a town 50km away, has brought extraordinary transformation to these villages.

“People simply cannot fathom the difficulties of offering connectivity in these remote areas. We are talking about regions where travelling to the nearest town or village takes four days,” Sherif Azzabi, Managing Director, RascomStar.

The team at work in the DRC.

Starting Out

“We actually started the business in Libya, and in the same way as many of the North African providers, were originally government-funded,” says Azzabi.

“But the revolution and the subsequently unsettling political climate changed everything. It led us to broaden our footprint, and we first piloted our service in three villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), expanding later to an eight-city pilot in the towns of Panu, Kalo, Bogoro, Yumbi, Tsumbiri, Kwamouth, Nkolo and Bolobo.

“We began by offering a simple GSM connection. The remote terminals were designed to be off-grid, with their energy source being the solar power operation and pay-as-you-go satellite backhaul connectivity. For clients, this literally involves minute-by-minute billing, and it enables GSM operators to have ease of deployment with low OPEX and maintenance costs.

“Today, we are a truly international business with teleport hubs in Alicante, Spain; Guildford, England; Nairobi, Kenya; and Douala, Cameroon, in addition to a TV provider in Luxembourg. Given that we have a satellite position of 2.9 East, we can cover the whole of Africa and also parts of Europe and the Middle East on a single beam. This means that we can deliver on our remit of providing connectivity to literally every part of the African continent. Since we also have a heavy use of satellite in the north, we are well placed to target the telcos, hotel groups, banks and the enterprise sector generally.”

RascomStar is now based in Dubai. Azzabi explains: “An in-depth report by KPMG showed us that Dubai is a hub, given that there are direct flights to almost all African countries. In addition, most of our suppliers have offices here.”

Finding the Solution

“In Africa,” says Azzabi, “Funding is the biggest problem. It is unreasonable to expect any sudden changes in general levels of infrastructure, because of the very high costs involved. But what we can do is provide access to connectivity that makes a real difference to the way people live and the kind of opportunities they can potentially access.

“That can be something as basic as being able to receive an SMS when a money transfer has arrived – a simple facility that affects tens of millions of people – and being able to make that money transfer online, rather than travel days to an exchange bureau. Or it might mean being able to keep in touch with loved ones on the other side of the country. Whatever it is, we believe connectivity offers the solution.”

Field Experiment in DRC 

A RascomStar installation in Nigeria.

Delivering telecom services in remote areas can be very challenging due to the variety of issues to address, like transportation, environment, human, technical.

The RascomStar installation team relates their recent experience and some dos and don’ts in the remote and underserved locations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DPC).

Transportation in underserved areas is the first challenge. One must find an experienced person who knows the location like the back of his hand.

Traveling conditions can be harsh and risky especially on sandy, muddy or rocky roads.

Boats are often the best means of transport to remote villages: common sense and field expertise is the recipe to overcoming various stumbling blocks along the way, but the key is still to plan, anticipate and prepare all the needed material like satellite phone, spare parts like tyres, batteries, and provisions for fuel, oil, and technicians. Of course there is no electricity, fuel, or garage on the way.

Living and Cross Cultural Conditions
Working in rural areas requires flexibility and the ability to adapt to local conditions: it can be a nightmare but also adventurous.

You must be ready to experiment with all kinds of food, living places, forms of entertainment and language of communication.

While some conditions might be tolerable, others like sleeping outdoors under tents or in mud huts with insects under extreme hot or wet climatic conditions, long-drop toilets, bucket shower baths with dirty running water in the dark or the use of candles can be challenging.

In the cross-cultural perspectives, one must be prepared to meet with people who communicate differently and will display behaviour that is not what we consider the norm. One must be prepared to experience a completely different lifestyle.

Working Conditions
During field installations, operations and maintenance, work usually begins at 7AM and can run until 11PM depending on the type of activity which can be very complex especially if it has to do with troubleshooting. Field team members may not always have favourable climatic conditions.

Food can be a challenge: eating once a day is common as there are no shops or groceries or simply because it is difficult to find a cook and even cook.

If you plan to cook, you have to bring your own tin cans. Be prepared to get dirty in the field. Again, planning and preparation cannot be stressed enough.

Even simple tools like a screwdriver or an Ethernet cable cannot be sourced locally. If you want to charge your electronic device, bring your own generator (and your fuel) until the solar panels are mounted and operational.

Security and Safety
Security is a major issue. One cannot rely on security guards.

The places you sleep and work have little or no security so we might experience cases of theft, pick pocketing and double dealing.

Work tools and other personal belongings must be supervised at all times.

Overall Goal of the Mission
Despite all these challenges, the main goal of the mission is to activate the various satellite and GSM sites as per the original project plan and deliver according to the customer expectation.

Once the site is operational, the reward of witnessing the joy of the inhabitants being able to talk to their cousin in Kinshasa or in the US, helps one forget all the difficulties faced in the past days.