Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Before NigComSAT-1 returns

Remmy Nweke writes that all things being equal, the Nigerian Communications Satellite-1, will return to the orbit by 2010, with a follow-up on phase-2 and 3. The development, he says, will mark a turning point in the nation’s thrive to remain ahead of other African countries in technology development.

During the month of January, this year, the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) disclosed that the nation’s failed first satellite, the Nigerian Communications Satellite (NigComSAT-1) will return to the orbit by last quarter of next year, 2010. According to reports, its Chinese counterpart has since agreed on the replacement of NigComSAT-1, which was de-orbited early November, 2008.

It was also gathered then that in order to work proactively, the Chinese authorities had reached another deal with Nigeria to split the NigComSAT-2 and 3 into phases as soon as possible to avoid future total breakdown. Thus, this step was anticipated to cushion the effect of any eventuality as regards to the satellite malfunctioning in the near future, with its attendant lose of clientele.

Reports also had it that in the latest deal, NigComSat-2 and NigComSat-3 will be launched into orbit six and 12 months after the replacement of NigComSat-1 by 2010.
“Between six and 12 months after the return of NigComSAT-1, the two-phased out backups will be launched,” a source close to NigComSAT-1 told ITRealms Online.

It was further gathered that as replacement work has reportedly commenced, under-writers across the two countries, have been working on insurance claims of the satellite between China and Nigeria.

NigComSat-1 was insured by a consortium of international insurance firms, including SpaceCo of France, Munich Cray of Germany, and the People’s Insurance Company of China.

Equally, local insurance companies, came together as co-insurers retained about 10 per cent of the risks shared, an equivalent percentage of the premium, even as these much were confirmed by the Managing Director of NigComSAT, Alhaji Ahmed Rufai, during the National Assembly probe of the investment recently.

ITRealms Online recalls that NigcomSat-1 was built by China Great Wall Industry Corporation at a cost of $250 million, about N37,187,500,770 billion. It became the first African geosynchronous communications satellite when it was launched on Sunday, May 17, 2007 and was being managed by NigComSAT Limited till date. This much was achieved under the immediate past President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration.

NigComSAT Limited:
Incorporated on April 4, 2006 as a wholly government-owned limited liability company, NigComSAT Limited, is the first African satellite communications company to manage and operate the first geostationary communications satellite (NigComSat-1) in sub-Saharan Africa.

NigComSAT was established to carry on business for profit, manage, operate and maintain in orbit communications satellites in respect of; satellite to satellite services, telephony (urban and rural), television, High Definition Television (HDTV), Direct-To-Homes (DTH) teleservice, teleprocessing, telepresence, tele-education, telemedicine, e-government, e-commerce, satellite radio, mobile and paging, broadcasting, broadband internet services, Real time monitoring services in shipping, petroleum pipeline, navigation, global positioning systems, and services or facilities, earth stations, terminals, antenna, frequency bands (C, Ku, Ka or L bands).

NigComSAT-1 has two ground control stations for the orbit maintenance and network operation services of the satellite. These two stations are located in Kashi, China and Abuja, Nigeria, with the latter being the main station and the former servicing as back up.

It’s a technical tragedy, but ...…
Reviewing 2008 in a chat in Lagos, the umbrella body of telecommunications companies in the country, the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), described the failed NigComSAT-1, as a technical tragedy, urging that government should start work on NigComSat-2.

Speaking through its National President, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, ATCON said that Nigeria required immediate commencement of NigComSAT-2 on learning about the failure of NigComSAT-1, which was reportedly parked after developing charging fault, prior to November 10, 2008 when the government owned up to the failure.

However, he advised that before then, government must truly unravel the cause of the failure of NigComSAT-1, warning that the incident should not deter the government from investing in future satellite projects, saying, “No nation shies away from challenges. We should proceed to NigComSAT-2 provided we unravel the cause of the failure of NigComSAT-1.”

Nigeria must be cautious on NigComSAT-1
United States-based Nigerian chief software architect at Schaide Technologies, Mr. Modibo Yunusa Usman, called for caution on the issues surrounding the recent demise of the NigComSAT-1. He said that Nigerians should not be quick to conclude on the vexed satellite, because it is not the first or will it be the last to experience failure.

Usman also urged Nigerians to see the failure of this initial satellite as a stepping stone to greater height by involving more research work on how to have a better satellite in the near future.

“As we remain the only country in the world with a success on first launch record, I hope our distrust for elected officials and our hand-them- high mentality for perceived failure without understanding the facts will be re-evaluated, at least, for the sake of national development,” he said. Noting that at this critical time in Nigeria’s development, “we must begin to understand that our failure belongs to our leaders as much as theirs eventually becoming ours.”

Stressing that Nigerians must learn to have the facts before them in order to offer relevant criticism instead of jumping into conclusion on the slightest actions, especially by those in the authority. Nigerians, he said, must learn the truth about issues and have the courage to support what is right against popular or partisan consensus.

Concerning the failed NigComSAT-1, Usman said that there are no easy solutions for the failing satellite globally, warning that Nigerians should desist from asking for the sack of those in authorities because something went wrong, “but let us not start by throwing away the baby with the bath water. Let us not discard all we have learnt since the inception of NigComSAT.”

Nigeria, he said, must forge ahead as one great nation and one people in all areas of technological endeavor, because no one else will do it for us, warning that one day Nigeria’s honey moon with big oil wells will come to pass, and argued that Nigerians should focus attention on sustenance of NigComSAT and like initiatives. Asserting, “Accidents do happen, nowhere is this more prevalent, than in the area of orbital and technology research.”

Pointing out that United States has lost over 1.3 trillion dollars in space and orbital research technology since the early 90’s. “US space shuttles and satellites have crashed-exploded and have been lost in space for decades. Even when countless human lives were lost, no one was asked to resign in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the government and agency were not chided or rebuked because every American understood that this was a necessary sacrifice for technological advancement and superiority.”

Rather, he said, the American people celebrated the successes of their space agency, NASA, and the brilliant people who work there, advocating for more sponsorship to get the job done better where failures were observed.

Many of these countries, Usman emphasized, have had a rough road to becoming one of the 45, recalling that India’s failed launch destroyed a 2 ton communications satellite on July 10, 2006, while Brazil had 3 failed attempts and lost their satellite on October 22, 1999, while China had 11 collective failed attempts. South Korea also lost their first satellite in space January 6, 2008.

In addition, he said, that Australia, Russia on June 23 2005 took turn in the failed satellite deal with US; Japanese satellite for direct TV broadcast in 2001 and the 500 million pounds European Union (EU) super satellite on 2001 have all been lost in space.

“Almost every member of the 45 country club has lost a satellite in space, with the exception of the more recent newcomers, and yet there has been no call for resignations or even a mockery of the government as some Nigerians are advocating,” he said.

Recounting that the failed NigComSAT-1 should serve as part of the learning curve in orbital and space research, saying it is a little price to pay to achieve technological advancement that would directly impact the lives of Nigerians.

Industry voices:

Equally commenting, a Senior Engineering Manager at Philips Place, Lagos, Mr. Patrick Edeh, said, government must not waste time in launching these satellites - second and third; because, as a country, Nigeria has made powerful statements with the launch of NigComSat-1 being the first black country to have a footprint in space.

“Despite the negative criticisms from a lot of western interests and their cohorts here in Africa, but the fact that NigComSat-1 changed the entire market thinking about bandwidth pricing before its technical problems proved that this is a road we must take,” he said.

For telecom analyst and chief executive of Kemilinks, Mr. Shola Taylor, Nigeria must see this hiccup of NigComSAT-1 as a challenge that is surmountable. “We must see this as a challenge. The satellite industry is a high risk sector but it offers immense benefits for any nation that veers into it. The manpower skill acquisition, infrastructure and possibility of socio-economic improvements are tremendous,” he said.

Taylor, further said, that every serious country wants to have a stake in the satellite industry and Nigerian government deserves commendation for getting into it in the first instance.

In his contribution, a Lagos-based technology analyst and promoter of rural telephony in eastern Nigeria, Mr. Pius Ikedife, drew attention to the fact that there is a lot of misconceptions out there about the satellite industry which tend to portray Nigeria’s entry as a disastrous attempt.

“More than 30 satellites have developed different levels of serious errors in the last 24 months built by the best hands in Europe and United States (US). But people don’t make fuss over this. You simply track down the problems, make amends and move on with newer investment that is ultimately justifiable,” Ikedife said, emphasizing that the lesson in this current challenge for Nigeria is that it must remain up there in orbits with not one satellite but several.

Chief executive officer, Emperion West Africa, Mr. Sansdeep Jayaswal, described the incident as unfortunate, expressing the hope that it would be successfully addressed with more of Nigerian communication satellites in space very soon. “With NigComSat-1, we at Emperion were able to leverage on the lower cost of high quality service to have competitive advantage over others,” he said.

As soon as this news of the nation’s return to orbit may be or sounded, especially the tentative date filtered in, another casualty was recorded in the global satellite industry by the European satellite operator, SES, which culminated in the shutting down of its ASTRA 5A, based on reported technicalities.

This means that unlike NigComSat-1, ASTRA 5A has a back-up satellite, which paved the way for its operators, SES, to quickly commence procedures for its return to orbit within the possible time.

And as noticeable as NigComSAT-1 failure is, it unarguably offered a rare window of bringing premium services to the market that in bandwidth against what foreign satellite companies could offer.

Although at the moment, NigComSAT-1 is as grounded as the NITEL with depleted clientele, but the truth is that with proper planning, taking into cognizance the causes of the failed NigComSAT-1, its return will be a relief and a milestone.
After all, practice is said to be make one perfect and that saying is not alien to Nigerian.

ITREALMS Online ... delivering news for ICT4D