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

Are 16 satellites the answer to reaching 3 billion people?

Scott Wallace/Staff

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.

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.

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.”

“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.

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