MTN partners with Starlink for satellite internet trials in Nigeria, Rwanda

By Joseph Ekeng
MTN, a leading telecommunications provider, has joined forces with Starlink to launch a groundbreaking trial aimed at significantly enhancing network coverage in Nigeria and Rwanda. This strategic move is part of MTN’s ambitious plan to extend its network reach to cover 95% of the population in the countries it serves.
According to MTN group chief technology and information officer Mazen Mroué, “There are ongoing engagements with SpaceX’s Starlink, with enterprise-grade trials under way in Rwanda and Nigeria,” he said, adding that discussions are also taking place with providers such as AST SpaceMobile for trials in Nigeria and South Sudan.
Despite substantial progress in internet connectivity over the past decade, rural areas and underserved regions continue to grapple with limited access. According to the GSMA, the coverage gap in sub-Saharan Africa has decreased from 50% in 2014 to 17% in 2022.
To address these challenges, MTN is adopting a cutting-edge approach by leveraging low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity. This move aligns with the telecom giant’s commitment to exploring innovative solutions for connecting uncharted territories and improving overall resilience.
Mazen Mroué, explained, “To complement our terrestrial network, we are now exploring the skies. Specifically, we are partnering for LEO satellite connectivity to connect the unconnected, extend mobile connectivity to more rural and remote areas, and improve resilience.”
Traditional satellite technologies have historically faced limitations in terms of latency and limited bandwidth. MTN acknowledges this and aims to overcome these challenges with two distinct yet complementary LEO-based solutions. Low altitude satellites, such as Starlink, offer faster speeds due to their proximity to the ground, presenting a viable solution for enhanced connectivity.
However, the implementation of LEO satellites comes at a significant cost. While traditional high-altitude satellites may cost around $500 million to launch, the network of low altitude satellites, including Starlink, requires an estimated $5 billion investment.
MTN is committed to achieving a 95% broadband population coverage across its footprint by 2025, up from 88% in 2022. To realize this goal, the company is actively pursuing multiple initiatives. One notable development includes direct-to-cell trials with Lynk Global in South Africa and Ghana, a critical step in enabling mobile devices to communicate with satellites in addition to cellular towers.
Vodacom, a telecom rival, is also advancing similar technology. The second phase of MTN’s strategy involves LEO satellites providing fixed connectivity for enterprise customers and efficient backhaul connectivity for MTN cellular sites, particularly in remote and rural locations.
The race for satellite dominance has intensified globally. In 2021, SpaceX, owned by South African-born Elon Musk, launched Starlink to provide satellite-based internet services worldwide. While Starlink has yet to secure a license to operate in South Africa, telecom operators are actively pursuing partnerships and technologies incorporating low altitude satellites to stay ahead of the competition.
In a bid to secure a strategic advantage, Vodafone, Vodacom’s parent company, announced a partnership with Project Kuiper, Amazon’s LEO communications initiative. This collaboration aims to extend the reach of 4G and 5G services to more customers in Europe and Africa.
As MTN and its counterparts embrace the potential of low Earth orbit satellites, the telecommunications landscape is poised for a transformative shift. The trials with Starlink and other initiatives signify a commitment to overcoming connectivity challenges and ushering in a new era of network coverage, especially in remote and underserved areas. The race for satellite dominance continues, promising a future where innovative technologies bridge the gap and connect the unconnected.


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