AMN using Starlink to expand mobile networks in underserved parts of Africa

Edwin Chabuka Avatar

Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) and Starlink have partnered up to enhance mobile connectivity by allowing Mobile Network Operators to use Starlink’s satellite network as a backbone link for base stations in remote areas. This is essentially one of the first practical cases of Non-Terrestrial-Networks which is a big deal and this is how.

How traditional mobile networks work

In a traditional mobile network, you have a Base Transceiver Station (BTS) but you are familiar with it being referred to as a base station. This is what your device with a sim card connects to for mobile internet, calls, or sms.

This BTS connects to a Base Sation Controller (BSC) which manages multiple BTSs so in essence the BTS is a slave of the BSC. The BSCs then report to the Mobile Switching Centre (MSC) which then routes traffic into and out of the network, so an MSC will facilitate the exchange of traffic between 2 different networks, for example, traffic between Econet and NetOne.

Image Credit: Skill Lync

For all this to work, all the BTSs, BSCs, and MSCs are connected by terrestrial links which can be high-capacity optic fiber cables or microwave radio links. When we say backbone links, these are the links we are referring to.

Cost Aspect

Setting up these backbone links costs money and so to produce an economical network, there is a preference by network operators to have as many developments or settlements as possible along the backbone link for the cost to be offset by paying customers located between big population clusters. 

NetOne Mobile Network Coverage Map

Because of this, you will notice that very small population clusters remotely located and outside of a backbone link usually have little to no mobile network coverage. A network operator will look at the cost of providing service there, the setup and maintenance of the site, and the time it will take to recoup that investment and if the math does not add up, they will not put service there.

Where Starlink comes in

What AMN is looking to do is to be able to remove the need for setting up these fiber or microwave radio backbone links and just route all voice and data traffic from a BTS to a BSC using the Starlink satellite network. This eliminates the cost of setting up terrestrial backbone links and all the operational expenses associated with running and maintaining these links leaving the only cost being the BTS itself.

It will also vastly reduce the turnaround time to get a BTS set up because the greater portion of setup time is actually laying these backbone links for the BTS to be connected to the rest of the network. It will also vastly increase the flexibility of where a BTS can be placed.

Who is AMN?

Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) is a group of companies providing Network As A Service (NaaS). They provide managed mobile network infrastructure for MNOs in remote parts of Africa which these MNOs might not be incentivized to cover for economic reasons.

AMN will set up and manage the infrastructure and MNOs can run their network through them eliminating the costs and logistics associated with an MNO setting up the network themselves. Currently, AMN provides its service in 14 African countries and is working on adding 6 more to that list. Zimbabwe is not yet part of that list if anyone was wondering. They have also deployed over 3000 base stations across the continent.

Their business model revolves around providing mobile network coverage in remote areas that lack mobile coverage. A suitable site for their service is a settlement with no existing mobile network coverage and a population of 1000 or more. They also offer a full suite of connectivity from 2G to LTE, voice, data, and SMS.

In a number of African countries, AMN partnered up with Orange as the ISP that will be providing mobile services which has a presence in 13 African countries. And on the base stations themselves, AMN was making use of VSAT satellites to connect remote base stations to the rest of the network.

Traditional VSAT has limited bandwidth and very high latency which could have been the bigger motivation for them to get access to the LEO satellite network that Starlink has. I think this could be an interesting case study on how Starlink’s satellite network and others like it can be used to expand mobile connectivity in Africa at a much faster rate.

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26 comments

  1. Isaac

    Well well well 🌝

  2. Kuku

    Hey! Did you hear that WhatsApp will add a new feature that allows users to send higher-quality images?

    1. Plop

      Gara wauya ku gb

    2. Ghetto Hacks

      You can send a one to one quality image if you send as a document instead. If that’s all you are looking for, GB is not worth the small gamble with your privacy and security.

    3. Talent

      That’s good news. Thank you

    4. jojola vharazipi

      president ED Munangagwa must be praised

  3. Kuku

    Great article! It has so much information! I hope Starlink comes to Zimbabwe soon.

  4. Phil Ineson

    Thanks for your very informative newsletters, they are very much appreciated. At a Glance really does keep me in the loop.

  5. Captain Jack Sparrow

    Albeit you left out the most important factor why this service will never make it in Zimbabwe ” SECURITY”. Our government doesn’t trust our data with 3rd party entities they have no control over… No Starlink No AMN unfortunately for Zimboz

    1. Robert

      Why do you say that ? From the info I have and what you are saying is quite at contrast.

      I don’t know whether my facts needs revision or yours.

      Been talking to regulator about this for a while now so ….

  6. R

    Under that arrangement, consumers are unlikely to benefit from cheaper data.

    1. Half Full

      Cheaper rates might not be forthcoming, but I think the primary benefit of this is network coverage and penetration in underserved areas. A more robust data service may also be a benefit especially if those areas never see anything higher than 2g.

    2. Robert

      Like all technologies they land expensive very normal. Back in 1999 while at Telco internet Comes mall working as a network techie I could count the number of connected dial up modems. Speed was around 19.2 Kbps and it was very very expensive to get connected and monthly fees let alone owning a pc.

      Things changed permanently when the smartphone came. At first it was wow . 1.5G , 2G , 3G , 4 and 5
      ADSL , leased lines , microwave and optic link. Fibre used to be a wow thing but not any more.

      Telone is in danger of extinction

      VSAT operators have been having a free ride for very long time it’s about time market forces kicked in. Starlink might be the pioneer on low orbit satellites but the other big 4 have programs as well

      Priced will come down

      Remember how mobile voice revenues tumbled thanks to internet telephony Skype, WhatsApp, and many others free peer to peer apps
      Initially VoIP was illegal in Zim
      Jail time. But you can only regulate so much of disruptive to technologies.

      It’s an opportunity for young technoz to capitalise on this

      4 of you start with one device each one invests $150 towards hardware or thereabouts and on bill probably $30 each per month for what 100 Mbps . This is an opportunity pounce hard and now. Just get the ethernet adapter and boom use a 5Ghz Omni directional WiFi broadcaster 802.11 ac

      Run any ICT or cloud or AI or BoIP or digital marketing all in the cloud!

  7. 🤨😏

    guys i forgot my facebook password and i cant reset because its sending a text code to a numbr i was usng abroad. how do i unlock it cz its causing a lot of trouble. help help drowing

  8. Bounty hunter

    Network ichavharwa here

    1. Robert Mugabe

      be prepared

      1. Died to switch off the net

        I almost forgot to build my EDC (election day carry😂)! Right after this, I’m gonna
        – Download 3 VPN’s
        – Download Tor
        – Download Signal
        – Download Telegram
        – Download offline maps
        – Download YouTube playlists
        – Raid the pirate bay (😭 its still down)
        – Dig up my shortwave and AM radio for when the switch gets flipped totally

        Extra stuff to do; buy beans, soy chunks and royco in case we get another week long powercut in my area 😂

        1. Kuku

          🤣🤣 Power cuts are very painful.

        2. Bounty hunter

          Kkkkk mandisetsa

  9. Tadiwa

    If you ask any IAP/ISP if they’d want their primary links to be optic fibre or satellite, they’d choose fibre everytime. The benefits far outweigh those of satellite links. That’s just how it is. Starlink’s own core network uses fibre as ingress to the MPLS. I’m failing to see how this would benefit any major ISP. They’d rather use another provider’s dark fibres who already has infrastructure than use satellite.

    1. Nashe

      The benefit is that MOBILE NETWORKS get to drop a base station anywhere without having to run infrastructure to it to make it work.
      Don’t get caught up on the fact that it’s Starlink and other LEO ISPs doing this. Yes, you’d normally associate them with internet service, but to the end user, it looks and runs like any mobile network with text, voice and internet working as normal. Its (mostly) not a replacement for traditional infrastructure, even though it technically could be. It’s a supplement.

  10. Mbavha4ED

    econet is the biggest scam company is zimbabwe, your airtime will disappear in the blink of an eye. my rtgs4000 gone withouth a trace so disappointed

    1. Tkt

      Tazvi jaira izvo baba. Even if you Turn Off Out-Of-Bundle browsing

    2. Audit your subs

      Are you sure you didn’t accidentally subscribe to one of their games/competitions/services? Did that once and figured out it was the reason for the phantom drain on my balance.

      1. Angelica

        I noticed my 120MB disappeared as soon as it came within a few minutes ndichibva kutenga
        No pending text message
        No subscription
        No whatsapp videos statuses watched
        WhatsApp isina ma groups kana media downloaded
        Data saver ON
        No tethering

        background data usage OFF for individual apps

        Saka haa ingori lucky kwauri takuzviziva is kuti pane chitsotsi chavanoita.
        Ku airtime zvese ne data

        Tanzwa neku reporta tichi resolverwa but its not sustainable kugara ungoripama 📱 111 talks ne customercare
        The issue is not their ability to resolve an issue but to prevent one.. the tech dpt should do thorough check of every account kuti hapana leakage here irikuitika or even kuti hapana employee anoba here..NetOne yaichiita same thing.
        You put $3 and immediately 0.14 yorohwa..you restart phone 5 times until airtime reaches $2.99.
        $0.01 harichadzoke and wakutotenga bundle rausingade

        Imagine madhara anozvizivirepi anongoti zvizukuru ndozvaba airtime

        1. Stars Align

          Maybe someone clever is taking $0.10 per recharge unknown to the board and CEO. Lucrative considering the amount of clients they have and very hard to spot…..

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