It’s easy to get complacent about access to the internet when you live in a country with almost end-to-end cellular coverage and a spiderweb of fiber optic cables. However, a surprisingly large percentage of the world’s population has either very limited internet access or none at all. Initially motivated on a trip to Rwanda when he realized how valuable improved internet connectivity would be to central Africa and much of Asia and Latin America, internet entrepreneur Greg Wyler also realized that most of the under-connected population was at low enough latitudes to be served by a ring of medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites in orbit over the equator.
Thus O3b (other 3 billion) was born. Wyler has raised $1.3 billion from Google and a number of venture firms to put an initial set of 12 satellites in orbit and provide them with ground stations. Because the satellites are only 5,010 miles (8,062 km) above the earth, latency is dramatically reduced from the 0.5-second round trip typical of geosynchronous satellites to under 150 milliseconds. The lower orbit also means the satellites can be smaller and lighter — around 1,400 pounds (635 kg) instead of several tons — as they only need a fraction of the power of their bigger cousins. The trade-off is that ground stations need to have tracking antennas to follow the satellites across the sky.
The first four of O3b’s Ka-band satellites were just launched, using a Russian Soyuz ST-B rocket from Kourou in French Guiana. An additional four are scheduled to be launched in September, prior to the system becoming operational in November. The company plans to launch additional satellites after that to continue to increase the network’s capacity and redundancy.
O3b has divided the earth up into seven regions, and will have at least one satellite over each region at all times. Each region will also feature a gateway base station that is responsible for connecting the satellite network to the world. Once at the satellite, traffic can be directed by up to 10 customer-focused beams to 600km diameter areas as needed to provide service. These areas can range from large cellular provider gateways that might have three 7.3-meter antennas and carry many gigabits of traffic, to smaller and even moving groundstations like the one planned to deliver “fiber-quality internet” to Royal Caribbean’s 8,000 person flagship the Oasis of the Seas.
The overall satellite network will initially have a capacity of 80Gbps, although it is expandable by adding more satellites. O3b believes its initial funding will pay for launching the first twelve satellites, getting them operational, and operating the company until it achieves profitability. Because of its lower-cost infrastructure, O3b believes it can compete on both price and quality with traditional satellite providers. Having used both the Iridium (low-earth orbit) and many traditional geosynchronous satellite systems, I can definitely attest to the value of the lower latency. The tracking antennas used by O3b will also avoid the annoying “coming and going” of the signal that plagues Iridium users.