Ruvimbo Samanga

Why Africa Should Expand its Mega-Satellite Constellation Capacity

Since 1988, Africa has spent approx. USD$4 billion towards the launch of 41 satellites (excluding the cost of the RASCOM-QAF 1R replacement). 30 of these satellites fall into the Small Satellite market. The majority of satellites owned by African institutions typically involves satellites with less than 600kgs in fueled mass and 24 of these satellites have less than 200kg fueled mass. The reason for the interest in the miniaturized satellites? In a nutshell, they offer cheaper design alternatives, coupled with the ease of mass production. They are also significantly more versatile in certain applications, owing to their reduced size. For example, they are the satellite of choice for low data rate communications, being launched in large multi-coverage constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

It comes as no surprise then that small satellites are growing increasingly popular amongst developing countries, no less within the region, for the accessibility. The growth of the small satellite industry is evident in commercial as well as large programs which exhibit steady growth. In 2019, 5 African countries launched 8 satellites, 6 of which were small satellites. It is expected that by the year 2024, 19 African countries would have launched additional satellites into space. These small, sometimes called nano-satellites, are really driving the African space program, especially in line with the African Union’s (AU) science and technology ambitions which are expected to reap huge benefits for the continent. Most importantly through the AU Science, Technology and Innovation Science Strategy for Africa – 2024 (STISA-2024).

Small satellites are categorized as space systems of up to 600 kg (falling into the categories of Minisatellites, Microsatellite, Nanosatellite, Picosatellite, and Femto Satellites). They range across different applications (Satellite Communications, Imaging & Earth Observations, Space Situational Awareness, and Technology Development), and have different end users (Government & Defense, and Civil & Commercial). Of the 8 satellites launched in 2019, 6 were small satellites (3 Nanosatellites, 2 Microsatellites, and 1 Picosatellite).

Satellite communications mega-constellations are on the rise, however this growing interest is not without its challenges and uncertainties. The biggest risks in the small sat interest in the coming years are mostly ascribed to investor’s rick assessment & funding availability; Securing customers & Return on Investment (ROI); Stronger regulations; Competition from heavier satellite, and reliability. This is also further compounded by the fact that establishing a satellite service industry which is sustainable requires adequate funding. Skillset deficit is also a prominent challenge. Even though Africa has and will in future have the largest population of young people, the youth are generally not interested in pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

You can expect more satellites to be launched despite these crises. As regards the African Small Sat market, the growth perspectives seem to point towards predominant university projects which demonstrates a capacity to operate Smallsats, also attesting to the affordability of the systems. This is also a sign of government effort to support the growth of this industry, and the contributions of the youth in satellite development. Indeed the manufacturing ability is extremely important, but also the service capability and development prospects. Despite these positive steps there is still quite a need for funding in this area.

Of the overall revenue and results, Earth Observation is the most predominant small sat use, however it is expected in the next few years this may shift to internet broadband, but ultimately, creating value for users and enabling services that drive industry development will be the ultimate determining factor. Internet coverage allows people to create capacity and this might undoubtedly be Africa’s most prolific use of small satellite solutions. CubeSats which are around 50 kg, are the most popular and are only getting bigger because of the interest for carrying larger payloads. But in future it may become less stringent to use the restricted platform, but the threshold is bound to switch to a smaller regular platform. These services are enabled through satellite mega-constellations.

Satellite mega-constellations operate in the Lower Earth Orbit which is described as the orbit located no more than 2,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface. There is room for LEO regarding low-latency connectivity. But this does not mean that the Geostationary Orbit will become redundant, rather, and on the other hand GEO will remain an asset for broadband, because of its efficiency and coverage as well as less-sophisticated ground segments. Nevertheless, the LEO offers the most advantageous orbital resource to come and deserves much policy intervention to regulate, owing to the fact that it is a finite, scare resource.

At the end of the day, whether Smallsats are launched in a constellation or as individual space systems, they offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional space objects, and would allow Africa the opportunity to release its potential in various areas of interest including but not limited to communications, global positioning and navigation, and Earth observation.

Africa would be enriched by the ability to use this new technology to enable users through diverse services, to protect assets within the value chain, or simply to monitor areas of national security such as the environment and borders. These are all aspects which will have a substantial developmental impact in the African economy, and is well aligned to the African space policy which speaks towards increase of space and satellite capacity in an affordable and beneficial manner.

Policy Considerations for Satellite Communications

Let us have a look at Policy Considerations for Satellite Communications. Satellite communications are part of African State’s critical telecommunications infrastructures, and support various other infrastructures such as transport, banking, and finance. In a future digital economy, these commercial satellites will enable African states to participate in the market, however, owing to the relative paucity of satcoms policy in most states and some space-faring, the capacity to achieve this is reduced. Some of the services from which the continent stands to gain are in information, communications, internet, rescue, navigation, disaster relief etc.

This section will detail the global business trends, international legal and regulatory issues associated with satellite communications and how these activities can further be supported through policy measures. It will become clear that in the African space sector, the financial, economic and competition factors have a substantial role to play in the viability not only of space programmes but satellite communications activities as well.

In Africa, substantive steps have been taken in the last decade to either create or upgrade telecommunications networks. The focus of doing so has largely been to provide low cost services, especially telephony, to both urban but particularly rural regions, through the use of satellite technology. To curb the stagnation of this critical sector, some nations have resorted to privatising and deregulating their communications sector, so as to open up competition, attract foreign investment, and also generate innovation for new technologies.

As the Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation (a consortium of forty-six nations) constructed and launched a dedicated satellite system for Africa, sound policy hinged towards regional integration was required. These ambitions are indeed alluded to within the African Space Strategy and Policy, but not, however, to the extent that delineates succinctly the expected contributions, liability, and concomitant benefit-sharing that will ensue from this multilateral project.

For the most part however, African countries rely on the INTELSAT network for traditional voice, data and video services. On top of this, INTELSAT has also accelerated the growth of internet services throughout Africa to boost telecommunications networks across the region.

Interagency Coordination and Legal and Regulatory Environment

A National Policy Approach

Responsibility for national space policies are usually delegated to the government of nation States. These activities for the most part are focused on governmental initiatives. It is fundamental that African government’s develop a national policy approach which speaks to the multi-stakeholder characteristics of outer space, particularly the rising NewSpace industry. To this end, emphasis on interagency coordination must be a priority.

Satellite Regulatory Issues

Radio Frequency Spectrum and Orbital Locations

Any equipment that uses wireless communications will require a radio frequency spectrum. Satellites are but one of these kinds of services, so it is expected that demand for radio frequency spectrum will increase. Few African countries have in place a frequency demand map which manages equitably the allocation of spectrum according to industry. Some countries, like Angola for example, have a National Frequency Map which delineates according to usage and priority industries. Having this plan at hands alleviates the difficulties and time-consuming task of allocating, assigning, and coordinating radio frequency spectrum of orbital locations for both public and private interests. These challenges are important to address as radio frequency and orbital location are necessities for operation in space.

Licensing of Satellite Systems

Concerning Policy Considerations for Satellite Communications, licensing of satellites is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is required that nations provide both public and private players an opportunity to review and influence the policy process. This kind of openness and transparency helps to instil public confidence and creates an investment incentives and rewards. This provides certainty which is an inherent feature of and regulatory activity. The State needs to accordingly provide for a public interest standard. Owing to the complexities of the process, private companies can wait upwards of two years so receive licenses for a satellite system. This time can vary according to whether there already is an allocation or not. The commercial satellite communications market is fast-paced, and with demand for radio frequency spectrum high, competition for terrestrial wireless services is strong, then time and certainty matter.

Export Licensing

Export regulations, especially those enclosed within International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). This restricts nation’s ability to source manufactured components to develop space technologies, including nations such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and CAR, which are all on the embargoed countries list. In the interests of boosting regional capacity, the role of regional integration will assist to alleviate the costs and burdens of shouldering national programs in the face of these and other technical, regulatory or human skills capital impediments.

Conclusion on Policy Considerations for Satellite Communications

Commercial space, though with its vulnerabilities, offers quicker and more innovative technologies and services, which on the whole increases levels of efficiency and broadens the types of applications. The demand for space resources can only increase in a set up where space-based technologies and services will be integral to explore, govern, teach, learn, conduct business and defend national territories. These are all expected realities of the 4th industrial revolution which is characterised by a digital knowledge economy. To this end the recommendations above are made in the hopes of enhancing these future critical satellite services for the sustainable development benefit of all African nations. This is what can be said concerning Policy Considerations for Satellite Communications.

Policy Solutions for Cybersecurity in Space

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let us have a look at Policy Solutions for Cybersecurity in Space. On the 4th of September, the President of the United States signed Space Policy Directive-5 (SPD-5) which establishes a set of principles designed “to protect the nation’s valuable space assets from a burgeoning variety of cyber threats”. The Deputy Assistant to the President was quoted as saying that Americans rely on capabilities provided by space systems daily, which highlights the need to preserve their functionality and designs. This new policy is a dedicated legal instrument which will protect space systems from cyber vulnerabilities and malicious attacks, providing a “whole-of-government framework to safeguard space assets and critical infrastructure”.

Modelling from this progressive step, it can be gleaned that an adequate space policy solution to address state security issues is one that would incorporate cybersecurity measures into all stages of space system development and operations. This would include provision for protective software, which is a significant feature of the U.S. directive. This is not the only concern, however, as other primary measures include ensuring a strict vetting process for anyone who comes into contact with the command lines of a spacecraft; monitoring the ground-based networks for any breaches, and also making sure that telemetry links between the satellite and the ground equipment are adequately encrypted. The central premise is that the policy should reflect a comprehensive end-to-end framework for maximum security, with appropriate adjustment depending on the nature and mission of the satellite (for example, a university CubeSat would not necessarily require the same levels of protection as a government-owned, military reconnaissance satellite).

A dedicated space and cybersecurity policy, as opposed to a general cybersecurity bill, will enhance a state’s ability to be more resilient to the particular risks posed to space services and capabilities, including space weather. It also enhances national security interests through space. Most importantly, however, it promotes a safe and secure space environment for all stakeholders. Where there is already a culture of regulatory intervention and compliance, the incidence of cybersecurity attacks is reduced. Hence, even as the space market becomes more commoditized, placing checks and balances to mitigate against evolving cyberattacks will not be difficult where the legal environment is already comprehensive. However, the situation is quite tenuous in the African context where, not only do the majority of African states (including some space-faring) do not have a national space policy, but related legal instruments are also devoid of the robustness and legal certainty needed to support cyber-secure measures.

One core market trend-savvy measure would be to incorporate a culture of cybersecurity even within the commercial satellite and space supply chain, in a way which is sympathetic to the quick-paced market environment. This would enable innovation which also has a normative function, such as quantum computing. This way, business interest and security would become the main driver of the cybersecurity reform within the space sector, which is reflective of the up and coming NewSpace industry.

The ideal cybersecurity regime is one that would encompass all of the respective interests of the various stakeholders, that is: corporate; military; scientists; end-users, and needs to address the myriad technical, economic, social and political interests, using a pragmatic combination of both bottom-up and top-down approach. It is essential to determine the priority aspect to be protected, whether that be broadband access or other, and form related policy interventions around this. And most importantly, the approach should be non-hierarchical but instead equitably address the concerns of all the stakeholders, ensuring each is individually knowledgeable and empowered as a valued contributor within the sector.

As with any aspect of space law and policy, space governance is an important consideration, which can be summarized in three points. Firstly, a cybersecurity regime requires enforcement of a system, backed by policy, which enables legitimate users, while increasing the costs for illegitimate ones. Secondly, governing the cyberspace is a collective action, and should be a multi-stakeholder initiative. Thirdly, to be sustainable, the regulatory regime should include a self-governing body and a lightly regulated effort from all stakeholders.

An international response is the best option to achieve a truly coordinated approach to protecting our shared cyberspace, which is in line with the fundamental principle of international cooperation and collaboration in space. The fact that there no international organizations or mechanisms which exist in this regard is even more justification for this kind of intervention. To this end, it is ideal that a global framework is established to standardize the space supply chain and regulate what has become an increasingly market-led domain.