Africa is only 10 months away from launching its own communication satellite. Barring any hiccups, RASCOMstar will become operational June 2006 to provide footprint for the entire region and usher in a new era of self-sufficiency in communication for the continent of over 880 million people.

The design of the satellite by technical partners Alcatel in France is complete. Most tests have been carried out and the stage for launch is set, RASCOM Director General Dr Jones Killimbe told IT Edge editorial crew in an exclusive media session last Monday in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

Insurance for the satellite is being worked out and bids for companies to provide launch pad has been opened. The Chinese may grab this to provide launch pad for Africa’s first satellite communication in what would further cement China’s growing influence in Africa’s ICT sector. The Chinese are building Nigeria’s satellite communication tagged NIGCOM SAT-1. This is also billed for launch in 2006.

46 African countries with the new entry of Equatorial Guinea own RASCOM and there are now only seven countries left to join the rank of owner-countries. There are high hopes that another country would make the list before year-end even as RASCOM calls for fresh investment from signatory member countries and private hands in what was originally planned to be the continent’s first major attempt at public private partnership (PPP).

The multi-million dollar initiative was conceived over 10 years ago to address the continent’s rising needs for international bandwidth and to reduce complete dependence on European traffic hubs.

Calls between most African countries are still routed through European hubs in London and Paris 45 years after political independence was attained by more than 80% of the continent’s 53 countries.

Over a decade ago, the African political leadership created the Regional African Satellite Communication (RASCOM) with headquarters in Abidjan to reduce the high cost of bandwidth access. Over $600 million, or more than the annual national fiscal budgets of half of the continent’s countries, is spent every year on international bandwidth to further reduce the continent foreign reserve.

In Africa’s fast changing ICT sector no operator buys bandwidth in local currencies but in hard currency. With more than 20 million phone users talking on networks most of which were not in existence when RASCOM was created, and the burgeoning growth in the Internet sub-sector, market should expand faster than anticipated for the RASCOMstar.

“RASCOMstar will connect African countries directly to themselves and integrate the rural communities or give access to rural areas at a much lower cost. The RASCOM satellite is a viable business because we are going to support a lot of businesses on the continent. Africa needs a lot of space, we are 800m people and more than 300m people would need to be active by getting connected to the information society. So what we are launching is something that is not only commercially viable but is long overdue,” said Killimbe inside RASCOM headquarters.