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O3b Aims to Offer Real Broadband to the World's 'Other 3 Billion'

Andrew Burger headshotWords by Andrew Burger
Investment & Markets
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Global, real-time communications would not be possible were it not for the 1,200-odd satellites orbiting the earth. By extension, globalization of culture, markets and the assembly of global businesses may well not have proceeded nearly as fast or to the degree it has were it not for satellite technology.

There were 1,235 satellites serving various purposes – from amateur radio to astrophysics – in various types of Earth orbit as of July 2014, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists' database. Over half – 639 – are for communications. The majority of communications satellites – or comsats – are in geostationary orbit, moving at the same speed as the Earth's rotation at fixed points along the equator, some 22,238 miles above our planet's surface.

We can add four more satellites to the roster of comsats orbiting Earth: Aiming to provide broadband Internet access to the “other 3 billion” human inhabitants that still lack high-speed voice and data network communications, “next-generation network” provider O3b Networks on Dec. 18 celebrated the successful launch of four comsats into medium-Earth orbit (MEO). That brings the number of satellites O3b has put into MEO in the past five months to eight. O3b's globe-spanning constellation of communications satellites now totals 12.

Bridging the 'digital divide'


Working closely with Arianespace, Thales Alenia Space and satellite fleet operator SES, a Soyuz rocket propelled O3b's latest four satellites, each weighing some 700 kilograms (~1,543 pounds), into MEO. The satellites launched from Arianespace's Guiana Space Center – aka the Spaceport – on the French Guiana coast at around 3:40 p.m. local time on Dec. 18.

Fully capitalized in November 2010, O3b went into full commercial service on Sept. 1, 2014 with a constellation of eight communications satellites. O3b initially offered over 4 gigabits per second (Gbps) of satellite broadband network access across the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The Dec. 18 launch -- and ongoing efforts to bring the company's eight other comsats fully online -- bring the total network bandwidth it's able to offer in developing markets to over 100 Gbps, CEO Steve Collar told 3p in an interview.

Putting its satellites into medium-Earth, as opposed to lower-Earth or geostationary, orbit along the equatorial plane confers a number of advantages as O3b seeks to enhance the capacity, speed and reliability of the broadband Internet and cellular communications services its growing constellation of satellites affords providers. Collectively, the satellites enable Internet and telecommunications providers access to “fiber-quality” broadband network connectivity at rates affordable for those in developing countries worldwide that, up until now, haven't been able to afford them.

The addition of four more satellites to O3b's constellation of MEO-comsats enables the company “to deliver connectivity that combines the reach of satellite with the speed of fiber, providing customers with affordable, low latency, high bandwidth connectivity,” Arianespace highlighted in a press release.

Multiple spot beams from medium-Earth orbit


Making use of multiple spot beams, the four new satellites will provide O3b an additional 40 satellite beams that it can focus at different points on the Earth's surface. Streaking high above in MEO some 4,971 miles above the Earth's surface means O3b can provide communications with much lower latency – less delay in sending and receiving communications signals – than communications satellites in much higher geostationary orbits. That's a critical attribute for broadband communications and one that O3b is uniquely in a position to provide among satellite network providers, according to Collar.

Upon going live in about six weeks time, the four new satellites will do more than add a significant amount of bandwidth and expand O3b's geographic coverage area. They will boost the overall performance of its constellation of communications satellites, Collar explained.

“The new four will slot nicely in our constellation. Every single link becomes makes the entire constellation more efficient. All the links will all get better; every one's performance improves, and that will continue ...We can launch more than 100 satellites in these same orbits. That's our work plan through 2015.”

As Collar pointed out, “O3b was global the day we launched.” Among the 15 or so customers it has signed up over its first 15 months of commercial operations, O3b is providing satellite broadband network access to service providers in such isolated, far-flung and hard-to-reach locations as the Colombian Amazon, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo capital of Kinshasa, as well as Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan.

On the hunt for new customers, Collar highlighted the dramatic and rapid increase in network traffic and demand experienced by O3b network providers in developing markets around the world. “We originally deployed 200 megabits per second (Mbps) for Raga Telecom in Kinshasa; they now have 800 Mbps.

"Fiber-quality" wireless broadband in far-flung places


The bandwidth gains and overall improved performance and affordability of O3b's satellite broadband network “is really caused by replacing geostationary capacity and providing more bandwidth and lower latency. Network-heavy apps such as multi-player Internet gaming and video streaming are working now where they didn't really before.” With much improved quality of service, “they're now seeing growth in demand.
“We designed our satellite system to deliver fiber-quality broadband at a lower cost per megabit. The best proof of concept is in the operations, the fact we have seen growth in Kinshasha, Papua New Guinea, East Timor – at least triple in terms of network usage.”

Most of O3b's customers are connecting via their 3G, and in some cases 4G, networks. “The vast majority in developing countries are linking O3b in with their mobile broadband networks,” Collar said.

Besides telecoms and Internet service providers, O3b is offering satellite broadband network access to large business enterprises in other sectors. “We're completely flexible in terms of where we point our beams,” Collar pointed out. For instance, O3b is providing over 500 Mbps of bandwidth to each of Royal Caribbean's three largest cruise ships – the largest in the world.

“We're a middle-mile provider – we don't go direct to end-users. We contract directly with large enterprises. The way to get to you is through telcos, cable companies and ISPs,” Collar elaborated.

To date O3b has raised about $1.2 billion in capital from high-profile companies and investment groups. That should be enough for the satellite broadband network operator to move forward and launch another four satellites over the course of 2015.

“SES is a very important shareholder,” Collar said. In addition to being O3b's largest investor, SES 'flies' O3b's satellites under contract. Similarly, other key shareholders, such as Google and Liberty Global, are not only investors but also customers and suppliers.

These investors, Collar noted, “are already our customers as we are of them.” O3b is buying network capacity from some of its investor-business partners. At present, O3b has signed up 15 such customers. Looking ahead to 2015, management expects to double that in early 2015 after just over three months since the launch of its satellite broadband network.

*Image credits: O3b Networks Limited

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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