Google-backed O3b launches satellites to offer Internet connectivity

O3b's medium-earth orbit satellites aim to provide low-latency and low-cost Internet connectivity

O3b Networks, a company backed by Google and other investors, has launched its first satellites that aim to provide low-cost and high-speed connectivity to parts of the world that do not have fiber infrastructure.

The company's first four satellites, launched Tuesday aboard the Arianespace Soyuz launch vehicle from French Guiana, made first contact with O3b's gateway in Hawaii, O3b said. The launch was delayed by a day reportedly because of weather conditions.

The O3b system aims to combine the wide reach of satellite with the speed of a fiberoptic network, targeting customers and businesses in nearly 180 countries with lowcost, highspeed and low-latency Internet and mobile connectivity.

O3b uses MEO (medium earth orbit) satellites as an alternative to more expensive geostationary satellites. Satellites in geostationary orbit offer the logistical advantage of remaining at the same point over the Earth at all times, enabling a single satellite to continuously serve a large geographic region. But geostationary satellites require a high altitude of over 35,000 kilometers above the earth in order to maintain their stationary position, according to O3b documents. This distance decreases their ability to provide the low latency required by most business applications.

Operating in MEO, the O3b satellite constellation will provide full country coverage within 45 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator, with a round trip latency of less than 150 milliseconds, according to O3b.

The Jersey, Channel Islands company aims to provide IP trunking and mobile backhaul services to ISPs and mobile operators in the equatorial region. Its O3bCell service, for example, connects cell site towers and the core mobile network, with support for 2G, 3G and 4G-LTE voice and data services, offering seamless upgrade to packet switched networks.

A second group of four O3b satellites will be launched in September to complete the first phase constellation of satellites. The first O3b customers will be able to begin using the service early November.

O3b did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A total of 12 O3b satellites are to be put into orbit by Arianespace in groups of four, with missions planned for later this year, and another in 2014, the commercial satellite launch company said.

O3b's many investors include satellite operator SES, Google, and Liberty Global. It raised US$1.3 billion to cover the cost of building and launching the first 12 satellites and running the business until it becomes operational and starts to generate revenue. O3b has already signed deals with telecom providers and ISPs including Malaysian telecommunications provider Maju Nusa and West Africa Telecom in Liberia. It has also tied with Royal Caribbean Cruises to provide broadband access service to passengers on its cruise ship.

Google announced recently its Loon project which involves the use of a network of balloons floating in the stratosphere, around 20 kilometers above the earth's surface, to provide Internet service "to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters." Project Loon started in June with a pilot in New Zealand. People will connect to the Internet using a special antenna on top of buildings.

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