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

Are 16 satellites the answer to reaching 3 billion people?

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Telecom experts seem intrigued. In locations without other good options for Internet access, “this sounds like it would be successful,” writes Jeff Kagan, a wireless and telecom industry analyst in Marietta, Ga., in an e-mail. “But I don’t think anyone knows at this point.”

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“We’re very excited [about O3b],” says Michael Bletsas, vice president of advanced technology and interconnectivity at the One Laptop Per Child project in Cambridge, Mass., a nonprofit that provides schoolchildren in developing countries with inexpensive laptop computers. “It’s a very good first step because it allows you to cover many more potential customers in places where there is really no infrastructure at this point.”

Entrepreneurs quickly built mobile phone networks in Africa, bypassing traditional land lines. O3b expects the same can happen with Internet access.

“The uptake on mobile phones in Africa is phenomenal,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and the founder of GeekCorps, a nonprofit group working to expand Internet use in emerging nations.

Mobile phones have revolutionized small business in Africa, says Mr. Zuckerman, who lived for a time in Ghana. For example, a carpenter can write his phone number on his door at home and then go out on jobs, knowing that potential customers can reach him at any time.

“The Net, so far, has not had nearly so much impact,” he says.

Google’s backing of O3b doesn’t make much short-term sense, Zuckerman adds. The people being brought onto the Internet don’t have much money to spend or credit cards with which to make online purchases, for that matter. But over the long haul, the move does make sense: “If [Google is] going to dominate the Internet, they want as many people on it as possible,” he says.

Just as it launches, O3b may face some competition in Africa. According to reports in the African news media, eastern Africa could be served by three new cable lines in the near future. One, called Seacom, is expected to begin service in mid-2009. After years of delays, EASSY (Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System) may finally begin operation in 2010. A third, called TEAMS (The East Africa Marine Cable System), would link Kenya to the United Arab Emirates, and thus to the rest of the world. It’s also set to come online in 2009. On Africa’s other coast, Africa West Coast Cable is expected to begin operation by May 2010. Initially, at least, these cable lines would be like Internet railheads. Others would still have to extend the service into interior and remote areas.

“More options to make bandwidth accessible ... is of huge importance,” says Mark Summer, CEO of Inveneo, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to improve communications technology in the developing world. Inveneo has projects on the ground in 14 African countries. Competition will help drive down the cost of connecting in Africa, which Mr. Summer estimates to be “100 times” more expensive than in the developed world. “It would be really exciting to see any of those [projects] – all of those – come to fruition,” he says.