THE government's target of 100% broadband penetration by 2020 could be reached sooner than that — if it uses satellite services.

The Department of Communications acknowledged the potential role of satellite in the national broadband project. It could be used to widen the present geographic coverage of about 30%, which covers 75% of the population, said the department's Norman Munzhelele.

“Including satellite services takes these parameters to 100% geographic coverage and 100% population coverage, but (with) limited speed and affordability,” Mr Munzhelele told an industry workshop.

Most of the existing coverage is in urban areas, leaving huge tracts of rural regions without internet access. David Williams, CEO of Avanti Communications, a broadband satellite provider, said it is not economical for telecommunications companies to lay fibre in these areas, owing to fewer potential users.

Research firm Informa Telecoms and Media's report on broadband in Africa calls lack of rural connectivity “market failure”.

“Although some mobile operators may see rural markets as the next growth frontier, it remains very hard for them to find commercial viability in connecting remote connectivity to national backbones,” wrote Kalyan Medapati, a senior analyst at Informa.

Avanti launched its HYLAS 2 satellite in August, covering northern, eastern and southern Africa. The satellite delivers video and data services and is available to consumers through local partners.

“We sell bandwidth to telecoms companies, who then sell it to consumers,” said Williams, adding that these were mainly satellite broadband, backhaul and IP trunking services.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times