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Eutelsat's new satellite will boost African communications: African Business editor Anver Versi was invited to see the finishing touches being applied to the latest satellite to join the system that is providing Africa with its digital link to the rest of the world. Here is his report.

If you followed the fascinating swings of fortune during the African Cup of Nations tournament last month, chances are that the matches broadcast from Tunisia arrived on your television set via a satellite operated by Eutelsat.

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Eutelsat, headquartered in France, is Europe's leading satellite operator and one of the big four globally. It is now poised to become the leading operator for Africa with the launch of its biggest and latest satellite to date, the W3A.

The satellite, built by EADS Astrium in Toulouse, France, was being given its finishing touches when we--a group of journalists--were allowed a rare look at one of modern science's true wonders.

If computers have changed the way the world works, communications satellites have changed the way the world looks. More than airlines, they have shrunk the world into a village. Events taking place thousands of miles away can be seen and heard simultaneously by millions if not billions of people.

Satellites enable you to talk to someone on the other side of the world on your mobile, to send and receive internet messages, to plug into cable television and receive any number of television channels on your TV set at home.

Live TV global broadcasting from organisations such as CNN, BBC World or Multichoice Africa would have been impossible but for satellites.

Satellite broadcasting has been so successful that we now take it for granted and hardly bat an eyelid when a new launch is announced--unless it is going to make a difference to what we receive on our TV sets.

Eutelsat's W3A--scheduled to be launched by a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the wilds of Kazakstan on the 16th of this month (March) will make a big difference to Africa.

Eutelsat, which operates 22 satellites in orbit, already covers Africa but the addition of the W3A will expand coverage, improve reception and enable a number of other functions, such as intra-regional African connections to be made.

STATE OF THE ART COMMUNICATIONS

"We want to provide state of the art satellite communications infrastructure for intra-African and Euro-African connections and services," said Olivier Millies-Lacroix, Eutelsat's director of Products and Sales.

The organisation, he explained, had included Africa in its coverage from the very beginning, when it launched its first satellite in 1983. Coverage of north Africa included Algeria, (Canal Algerie), Egypt (ESC1), Morocco (RTM 1, 2M Maroc, MA3) and Tunisia (TV7 Satellite).

W2, launched in 1998, provided digital pay-TV coverage of the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion, Mauritius and Madagascar (Canal Satellite and Parabole Reunion).

Two years later, in 2000, Eutelsat launched the W4, expanding its coverage of Sub-Saharan Africa. A long term partnership with Multichoice Africa allowed distribution of Direct-Service pay-TV (DSTV) in 36 countries, ranging from Benin to Zimbabwe. Multichoice now has a subscriber base of 140,000 homes who receive over 50 TV channels and 20 music stations. Multichoice also offers high-speed internet access to DSTV subscribers in Nigeria.

In 2001, Eutelsat launched W1, which provided a high-power Ku-band spotbeam over central and southern Africa. Applications included satellite newsgathering by Globecast South Africa for sports, cultural events and breaking news.

Atlantic Bird[TM] 3, launched in 2002 provided robust C-band capacity serving the whole of Africa and enabling connectivity with Europe, the Middle East and North America.

The satellite carried a host of services, including two way broadband internet access, GSM cellular network connections, VSAT connections for credit card authorisations, telemetry for oil and gas applications, distance learning and enterprise-wide internet access. Also available were direct programme delivery from Europe for distribution to networks in Africa and TV and radio broadcasting of African channels, for example CRTV-Cameroon and Africa No1.

The launch of W3A this month will add to Eutelsat's already extensive coverage of Africa. The satellite's coverage spans Europe, large parts of the Middle East and Africa and it will be the main link for broadcast networks that deliver video, data and broadband services.

"By providing multiple possibilities for inter-regional and intercontinental connections, it opens up new opportunities for broadcasters, telcos and internet service providers who want to reach the most populous and important markets of Sub-Saharan Africa," said Millies-Lacroix.

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THE SATELLITE

I have been fortunate enough to witness the awe-inspiring, earth-shaking launches of one of the US Apollo missions and also the WorldSpace satellite launch from French Guyana--but I had never before actually seen a satellite itself. The trip to EADS Astrium's satellite construction site in Toulouse therefore was a wonderful opportunity to make good this omission.

Security, understandably enough, was very tight as we entered the complex. Before entering the work-space proper, we were kitted out like surgeons about to go to an operating theatre. The equipment under construction was very delicate and precise and they didn't want us clomping about with dirty shoes or shedding bits of clothing or hair.

Our guide was Arnaud de Rosnay, programme manager for the WA3 satellite project. There was an immediate rapport because De Rosnay was born in Mauritius--"I had to make sure that Mauritius is covered by WA3"--he said with a twinkle.

He took us through the complex technicalities of Ku and Ka band frequencies, the significance of the satellite's 58 transponders, it location (7 degrees East) and the presence of "Eutelsat's Skyplex on-board processing facility which enables individual digital carriers to be uplinked to the satellite and multiplexed on-board."

I asked him what all this meant in layman's (in which group I belong) language. "It means it will be more powerful and will provide easy connections within Africa and between Africa and Europe and also the Middle East," he said.

In short, we will be able to get better reception from more sources.

But the star of the show was the satellite itself. It was a large, odd-shaped box with what looked like cloth made from pure gold swathed on one side and drum-like structures covered in foil on the other. The inside, painted black, was a bewildering mass of wires and various bits of metal. These and long thin deployable antennae, we were told, pick up broadcast signals from the ground, process the data, remove 'noise', amplify the signal and transmit it back to receiving stations or the dish on your roof.

As we watched, one of the satellite's solar panels--those are the long rectanglar structures that look like wings when you see a picture of a satellite--was unfolded. The panel was composed of a number of hinged sections which fold together like one of those extending children's books while the satellite is in launch mode. "Once the rocket has placed the satellite in its correct position in orbit," De Rosnay explained, the panels open out slowly before extending to their full 37-odd metres end to end.

The panels were beautiful--some of the sections seemed tiled in highly polished marble, others in dazzling glass or mirror. "This is the energy source," De Rosnay explained. The panels collect light from the sun and convert it to electrical and electronic power for all the satellite's functions.

"What happens if there is an eclipse of the sun," I asked. "We have developed special batteries just for that eventuality," replied De Rosnay. We wondered around, gawping at various strangely shaped pieces as the technicians assembled them in some mysterious order. By the

time you are reading this, the Proton rocket will, all going well, have thundered off its base in Khazakstan, delivered the satellite in orbit and WA3 will have begun life as the latest in a long chain of scientific marvels that enable you to watch the African Nations Cup live in your own living room.
Telecoms in Africa

Out of Africa's estimated population of 825m:

One in 40 have a fixed line (20m)
 in 160 use the internet (5m)
 in 13 have a TV set (62m)
 in 4 have a radio (205m)
 in 35 have a mobile phone (24m)
 in 130 have a personal computer (5.9m)
 in 400 have Pay-TV (2m)
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Title Annotation:Telecommunications
Author:Versi, Anver
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Words:1329
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