Going the last mile

With Al Yah 3 up for launch, and a new regional benchmark set for in-flight connectivity, Yahsat, the UAE-based operator has all reasons to be bullish about the potential of satellite communications
Farhad Khan: “Others might be intimidated by 5G, but for us as YahSat, we believe that it presents a huge opportunity.”
Farhad Khan: “Others might be intimidated by 5G, but for us as YahSat, we believe that it presents a huge opportunity.”

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The excitement around the launch of Al Yah 3 was hard to miss at Yahsat’s stand at CABSAT 2018. It only got reaffirmed when CommsMEA caught up with the CCO of Yahsat, Farhad Khan. Khan said that the primary objective of Yahsat at this year’s CABSAT was to create awareness and understanding about the upcoming launch, as well as demonstrate recent successful partnerships in providing connectivity to remote areas and making lives better.

Al Yah 3 is scheduled to launch on 25 January 2018 from Kourou in French Guiana. So, what’s so exciting about this new satellite? According to Khan, there are several reasons to be excited for Al Yah 3. Most importantly, for the first time, Yahsat gets access into the Brazilian market and will cover 95% of the Brazilian population. In 2015, Yahsat was awarded the licence by the National Telecommunications Agency, ANATEL, in Brazil. In addition, Yahsat also gets access to 19 additional countries and hence access to 60% of the African population.

Africa is a different country compared to Brazil, especially in terms of the economic situation and the amount of infrastructure. “We believe that the opportunity in Brazil is substantial enough to even justify and warrant more capacity. In Africa, we don’t go direct to market, rather we have partners with licences in the different countries,” Khan added. “With Al Yah 3, now we introduce a lot more partners into the equation for the new countries and that in turn creates value, employment and opportunity for more people in the ecosystem.”

Another interesting highlight from Yahsat at CABSAT was its success stories in the fields of remote communications and healthcare. “We have enhanced quite a bit on the education, and healthcare and we have got government partnerships in more countries to entrench our position to push our satellite solutions, in areas where infrastructure doesn’t exist,” Khan added.

Khan further went on to explain the backgrounder of Yahsat’s efforts in these areas. There are several rural and remote environments where we have entire communities without access to any kind of infrastructure. In areas like these, it’s not exactly feasible to dig trenches, deploy fibres and provide connectivity. “The way Ka technology is designed allows us to re-use frequencies multiple times, hence giving access to more bandwidth. Hence, using our existing technology, infrastructure that has already been invested, we have the ability to reach these communities,” Khan explained.

Even after substantially reducing the price of satellite kit to as low as the price of a smartphone, Yahsat figured out that there still were pockets of poverty where even this was not affordable. In order to counter this, the operator has teamed up with the Danish technology and internet service provider company, BLUETOWN, which specialises in community connectivity. “With their WiFi solution, we are able to cover communities of up to 500, and distances of up to 10 km in radius, which could represent an entire village, or town in the most extreme rural areas and all for the cost of one CPE connectivity”, Khan said. “We are very excited about this because we know we are becoming a lot more relevant in the quest for telecommunications penetration, in the quest to give access to the most under-privileged people. To facilitate monetisation of the connectivity, Yahsat has partnered with Tanaza, who are known for developing a multi-vendor software to easily cloud manage Wi-Fi Access Points.

Another passion point for Yahsat is that of education and healthcare. To this end, the operator has partnered with a company called Interactive Group. Thanks to this partnership, mobile clinics can be successfully created and deployed without any need for “bricks and mortar, bills and deals”. Basic medical kits are provided to these mobile clinics. A patient can come here, and his/her vital biometrics are recorded and remotely transmitted into a centre which has access to specialists who diagnose instantaneously and send back the status to the person at the mobile clinic. The software enabling this also allows the system to remember patients so that if they come back, all their information can be readily made available.

Khan said: “We as YahSat don’t play across all layers of the value chain; we are very strong on connectivity and we believe we have one of the most affordable and high quality solutions out there.” What was needed was to create sufficient value to attract other technology partners, and weave an entire ecosystem to enable communications for remote areas, and this is what has been the focus for Yahsat.

In yet another exciting success story of satellite connectivity, Yahsat has partnered with Government of South Africa for pension fund administration. “We have identified that there are 1.2 million people we have connected at this stage, who are eligible for a pension but they were not even aware that they were eligible,” Khan said. Yahsat provided its connectivity solution to the GEPF in South Africa so that connectivity wouldn’t be an issue even in the remotest of areas. The candidates can come in with their identification, GEPF can do a verification and if they are eligible, pension payment can be facilitated. “It’s all about making people’s lives better, using telecommunications to connect communities,” Khan added.

While the remote areas have always been compelling business cases for satellite providers, one wonders the potential for satellite connectivity in the advanced markets, where the fibre penetration is excellent. According to Khan, in such scenarios, satellites are used for back up when fibre connectivity fails. When one looks at the connectivity hierarchy, there’s fibre and ADSL connectivity and then there are GSM solutions. However, there still are several cities and sub-urban areas where operators don’t see financial viability in rolling out 4G. “The beauty of our solution is that our technology is capable of providing better speeds, better availability and better quality than the standard 3G solutions. So the people who are living on the fringe of connectivity where they can’t get 4G and 3G is quite contended, look to us for a solution.”

With the first 5G specification being released already, it’s interesting to ponder over the possibilities for satellite operators in the 5G era. Khan sees the biggest opportunity in mobile backhaul. “We are engaged with quite a few mobile operators. We believe that definitely there are going to be cases where they wouldn’t have microwave coverage or fibre, and that’s when they will use Ka to backhaul their base stations. Others might be intimidated by 5G, but for us as YahSat, we believe that it presents a huge opportunity.”

As it turns out, 5G is not the only upcoming technology where Yahsat has found relevant applications of its solutions. When it comes to internet of things, the operator looks forward to obvious opportunities in transportation and monitoring.

One of the biggest highlights from Yahsat in 2017 was when Yahsat announced the successful trial of a 50Mbps in-flight connection. This was the outcome of a unique partnership between Yahsat, du, Etihad Airways Engineering, Hughes Network Systems and Carlisle Interconnect. “To have that kind of speed in air where a person could have lounge like comfort and access to entertainment, business tools, email, VPN connectivity, is unheard of. We are extremely proud of the fact that we were able to co-create that solution together,” Khan said.

Yahsat is quite excited about its foray into inflight connectivity. “We have actually created a vertical within the business to focus on inflight connectivity. Our plans are to identify capacity solutions to ensure there’s continuous coverage across the globe. We will continue exploring partnerships with airlines and the technology partners.  We have showed it’s possible, now it’s up to us to accelerate our efforts to make it commercial,” Khan added.

So, what’s next for Yahsat? “We believe the satellite story is compelling. We are one of the world leaders in broadband solutions and in Africa, we are the number one provider. I think we are in a good place,” Khan said. He further added that now the company is focussing on being a catalyst to create interesting partnerships that will enable communities and solutions in the most remote areas. “I believe there’s a compelling business case for us, it’s up to us to ensure that our solutions are relevant and affordable for the communities that we serve.”

Going ahead in the year, Al Yah 3 will stay in focus. “It’s a huge behemoth task to open new markets. Brazil has been two years in the making. We have identified partners and created that momentum. We have to replicate that model in Africa too in the new markets,” Khan said. In addition, the company will be working hard to entrench the position it has reached with its existing solutions. “We are very bullish about the potential and possibility for satellite connectivity. Time and again we see there’s good demand out there to make use of our existing capacity. We believe there’s enough demand to warrant more capacity being launched. Right now we are in the process is to ensure that in the countries where we have the coverage, we should also have the appropriate channels.  The trick for us is to identify partners that have the willingness to invest in these rural communities with us in order to ensure that the product is available.”

(Note: CommsMEA went to press before the launch of Al Yah 3.)

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