Starlink rival OneWeb launches first site in South Africa

Satellite network operator Eutelsat Group and South African satellite enterprise company Q-KON have announced the first installation of the OneWeb low-earth orbit (LEO) service in Africa.

The deployment was done for an unspecified leading digital bank at one of its flagship branches in South Africa.

“The launch of commercial services by Q-KON follows the successful 2023 incorporation of Eutelsat OneWeb LEO satellite connectivity into their Twoobii Smart Satellite Services,” the companies said.

“Not only is this a first for the leading South African digital bank in question, but it is also the first operational Eutelsat OneWeb LEO site in Africa.”

The Twoobii LEO service can provide speeds of 50Mbps with low latency and acts as a redundancy for the branch’s fibre connection.

That enables the bank to keep running its services even during terrestrial hardware failures or power outages.

The companies said that bank staff and customers were already reaping the benefits of always-on connectivity and that the bank was “actively” considering rolling the service out to its other branches.

There are three major digital-only banks in South Africa — Bank Zero, Discovery Bank, and TymeBank.

Bank Zero does not have any branches. Discovery Bank technically doesn’t have branches but offers smart ID and passport services at its Sandton offices.

TymeBank has kiosks at supermarkets that serve as its physical locations.

Certain traditional banks are sometimes also labelled as digital due to offering the ability to take up and manage accounts online.

Eutelsat and Q-KON explained that the Twoobii LEO solution combined anytime connectivity with the necessary security protocols required to transmit bank account and financial transaction data in real time.

“It is being used to deliver a wide variety of complementary processes, both operational and customer-facing,” they said.

“These include intranet, software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs), branch online management, data backhauls, staff and customer Wi-Fi, and ATM services.”

Q-KON Group CEO Dawie De Wet said the company looked forward to continuing the LEO services rollout to more bank branches.

“This fully operational LEO installation is further evidence of the utility of the Q-KON Twoobii Eutelsat OneWeb solution in financial services contexts.”

Competition from SpaceX and Amazon

Eutelsat previously only operated geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellite services but merged with OneWeb to form the Eutelsat Group in September 2023.

Its GEO service has slower speeds and higher latency than OneWeb, which has a fleet of LEO satellites operating much closer to the Earth’s surface, similar to SpaceX’s Starlink.

While GEO satellites operate at 35,000km above the Earth’s surface, OneWeb and Starlink’s fleets orbit at a 1,200km and 550km altitude, respectively.

The reduced distance not only enables faster speeds but substantially improved latency.

While GEO services have latencies of around 600ms or more, OneWeb can achieve sub-100ms latency. Starlink is aiming for 20–40ms.

OneWeb is primarily geared towards businesses, enterprises, and government institutions rather than individuals.

Nonetheless, Starlink also offers higher-performing dishes and packages specifically geared towards commercial users.

However, Starlink is yet to be licenced in South Africa, while Eutelsat OneWeb already has full licencing from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

Its approval was likely easier to achieve because it partnered with local providers, while Starlink’s business model is to sell directly to the customer.

Amazon is expected to become another major player in the LEO industry, with its Project Kuiper service slated to get its first customers in late 2024.

While Project Kuiper must also first get approval in South Africa, Amazon has already advertised for a position specifically focused on handling local regulatory clearance for the service.

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Starlink rival OneWeb launches first site in South Africa