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O3b Networks: A far-out plan to deliver the Web

Are 16 satellites the answer to reaching 3 billion people?

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2008

Scott Wallace/Staff

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Greg Wyler worked in Rwanda from 2004 to 2006, trying to stitch together a modern Internet infrastructure for the African country, finally putting itself back together after a devastating civil war.

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But no matter how hard he tried, Mr. Wyler realized there was a problem beyond his control: At some point, he had to connect his in-country network to the outside world. Satellite links were far too expensive and designed for one-way television broadcasting, not two-way Web traffic. And land lines were far, far away.

“You needed to be able to reach all the way across Africa ... to where the global Internet was,” he recalls. In the United States, the challenge was often to connect “the last mile” to a home or business. In Africa, Wyler realized, the problem was “the first 5,000 miles.”

Today, Wyler is back in the US with a fresh perspective on the problem. Instead of slugging it out on the African landscape, the high-tech entrepreneur will attack from space. His new company, O3b Networks, plans to launch 16 satellites into low-earth orbit around the equator, opening up inexpensive Internet access to billions of people in remote parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

O3b is short for the “Other Three Billion,” the nearly half of the world’s population that has little or no access to the Web.

So far, he’s received about $60 million in financial backing from Internet-search giant Google; Liberty Global, a cable-based data services company; and HSBC Principal Investments. The total cost is expected to be much more.

Internet service to remote areas from his satellites should cost about $500 per megabyte per month, Wyler estimates, down from about $3,000 per MB per month now via existing satellites.

High-quality service through fiber-optic land lines generally costs between $500 and $2,000 per MB per month, Wyler says. But the problem is that these lines don’t exist in much of the developing world. They are expensive to lay, and poor, rural areas are likely to be last to get them.

The new satellites will orbit at about 5,000 miles above Earth, much closer than existing geostationary satellites, which sit about 22,000 miles high. As such, the new satellites will suffer much less “latency,” the time lag when data travels between the surface and a satellite. That’s especially important for Internet traffic, where data is constantly traveling to and from users’ computers.

The O3b satellites will continuously circle the Earth. As each satellite passes a region, it will pick up the Internet traffic there and then pass it to the next satellite before going out of range. In theory, as few as five satellites could do the job. But O3b plans to put up eight by the end of 2010, when it will begin operation, followed by eight more to complete what it expects to be a strong and resilient network. The result, Wyler says, will be “much lower cost and much higher-quality access for neglected parts of the world.... It’s a leveling of the playing field.”

Less than 3 percent of Africans use the Internet, according to a 2004 study from the International Tele­communication Union, a United Nations agency. In 30 countries, less than 1 percent of inhabitants tap into the Web. (In the US, about 70 percent of the population goes online.)

Wyler expects local entrepreneurs will be eager to build local ground-based networks based around his satellite system. While O3b has not announced any local partners, “a lot of people are interested and excited and waiting for the capacity,” he says.

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