Africa’s satellite-streaming transition: A question of timing

Africa’s satellite-streaming transition: A question of timing

Media companies across Africa are facing a daunting, but critical, question: When does streaming become viable over satellite?

This is a multilayered question. The first complexity is that it is by no means obvious that the days of linear, terrestrial television are over, and that streaming will now sweep all before it. While streaming services are certainly on the rise in Africa, their audiences are still only a fraction of linear TV audiences.

By way of illustration, the most popular television show in South Africa in March 2024 was Uzalo, shown free-to-air on public broadcaster SABC1 and attracting 5,6 million viewers a night. Compared with this, streaming market leaders Netflix and Showmax have total subscriber numbers on the entire continent of around two million each.

Streaming is growing, though. Showmax, for instance, saw its subscriber numbers grow 26% in the year to April 2023.

The potential audience is also expanding. The GSMA Mobile Economy 2024 report projects that Africa’s mobile broadband subscriber penetration will reach 49% by 2030, from around 44% in 2023. Smartphone adoption is projected to soar from the current 55% to 86%.

Content engagement is also set to expand significantly. GSMA figures predict that mobile data traffic per connection in Sub-Saharan Africa will grow to 9GB per month from the current 2GB – a CAGR of 23%, the joint highest in the world.

The anticipated surge in mobile usage will bring a hunger for more content, more films and TV shows, and ultimately faster connectivity.

This connectivity roll-out will come in the form of fibre as well as mobile broadband. However, when it comes to mobile broadband, Africa is in many ways still a frontier territory. Despite rapid uptake, only around a quarter of the continent’s population is connected to the internet. It’s expected that there will be 438 million mobile internet users by 2030 – out of a projected population of 1,7 billion.

There is therefore a great opportunity for the continent to leapfrog certain development stages and embrace newer technology platforms as it rolls out connectivity to its people.

Among these is satellite internet connectivity, which uses low earth-orbit satellites to deliver high-speed broadband internet capable of supporting video streaming, online gaming, video calls and more.

“High-speed, low-latency internet provides almost universal coverage to even the most remote rural areas,” says Steve Bretherick CTO of Telemedia an early adopter of satellite connectivity in Africa, providing teleports, broadcast facilities and communications solutions.

“Satellite internet connectivity is also practical, and affordable,” he says. “The fleet of low-orbit satellites is already deployed, and there are no further infrastructure requirements, such as with legacy mast-and-tower mobile technologies.”

There has already been enthusiastic uptake for technology on the continent, with leading satellite provider Starlink already available in several African countries – Benin, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Malawi – and many scheduled to get the service later this year.

With the satellite-streaming footprint soon to cover at least half of Africa, content providers will have to seriously consider their platform strategy. Digital streaming is set to become significantly more accessible in even the most remote parts of the continent.

At that point, the transition from terrestrial broadcast platforms to digital streaming will be close at hand.

However, the space is a complex one. It is made even more complex by the commercial considerations of these various platforms, and the different opportunities to monetise content.

For now, advertising on linear television in Africa remains more lucrative than on digital streaming. But how much longer that state of affairs will persist is unclear. At the same time, the African media landscape is littered with the corpses of digital content platforms that over-anticipated the pace of the digital migration, and failed spectacularly.

The keys to success are timing, as well as technology and content expertise. Content providers – and media businesses with content aspirations – need to enlist quality support and advisory from industry experts.

Satellite-powered content streaming is set to revolutionise the media landscape in Africa. When and at what pace that will happen is the key question. Those who get their timing just right will be able to ride the digital wave to victory.

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