Lighting-fast downloads in Lagos might be possible soon. O3B, a Google-backed satellite startup, wants to put the “world wide” into the WWW. O3B stands for Other Three Billion, which refers to the population of the world living in places where high-speed Internet connectivity isn’t available, or is far too expensive.
O3B’s plan is to deliver Internet via eight satellites circling the earth in a middle orbit, which are nearer than typical communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. O3B says that sending satellites to the closer orbit cuts down round-trip transmission times from 500 milliseconds to 100, virtually eliminating the delay that plagues voice and data communications via satellite systems. The system also uses an equatorial orbit, which requires just six satellites to achieve constant coverage for people from 45 degrees north and south. The coverage area includes emerging and insufficiently connected markets in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacifics.
O3B has raised more than $1.2 billion in funding, and is planning to launch its satellites and services in the first half of 2013. Operators in the Cook Islands, Pakistan, and Nigeria have recently pre-booked capacity on the O3B constellation to serve their respective markets.
The first set of satellites are being built by Thales Alenia Space in Cannes and will be launched by Arianespace using a Soyuz 2 rocket from French Guiana. The company plans to scale their operations and have 20 satellites in orbit by 2015. Each satellite has a lifespan of around 10 years.
Globally, just 5% of the world has access to fast Internet connections at home. An estimated 32% of people on the planet used the Internet last year, up from 11% in 2002. But poor countries still lag far behind on Internet access, with only 13% of the population in Africa going online in 2011. The O3B-backed satellites could help spur innovation and education by giving more people access to online tools for finance, reporting, and social media. It will also help prevent Internet disruptions like the one that happened this spring when a ship dropped its anchor on a fiber-optic cable off the coast of Kenya.