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Summary:

O3b and Kymeta are trying to build a self-steering non-mechanical satellite antenna using metamaterials. Such an antenna could make O3b’s satellite broadband links mobile, helping further it and Google’s goal of connecting billions of people.

O3b satellites

O3b Networks, a satellite venture with financial backing from Google, put its first four broadband satellites into medium-Earth orbit this summer, and it’s already started signing up customers. ISPs from Somalia to Micronesia have committed to buying capacity when it goes live in 2014, which has gotten O3b thinking about how the ways it can connect those customers.

A cross section of Kymeta's metamaterial antenna

A cross section of Kymeta’s metamaterial antenna

O3b is now working with Kymeta, a Redmond, Wash.,-based satellite antenna startup to develop steerable terminals based on metamaterials technology. The idea is to build an antenna that can dynamically point itself at a satellite overhead using synthetically engineered materials that manipulate the electromagnetic waves around them (Intellectual Ventures, which spun out Kymeta last year, has even said metamaterials could be used to build cloaking devices).

They expect to have their first electronically steered prototype antennas in 2014, though O3b and Kymeta wouldn’t give any details about what kinds of devices or terminals would come out of the partnership. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, however, for a smartphone that connects to the heavens rather than the cellular network.

Kymeta is still working on a larger scale. It’s antennas are connecting boats, trucks and planes, though it is exploring the possibility of a portable antenna terminal the size of a laptop that could be used to connect other devices like phones, tablets and PCs.

Kymeta Plane antenna

Still, building portable or mobile antennas would be a big step over a satellite dishes or mechanically steered antennas pointing at moving specks in the heavens. O3b’s initial customers are wireless ISPs using WiMAX and wireless broadband technologies to provide broadband access and O3b’s satellite links as backhaul. A cheap, efficient antenna with no mechanical parts would be ideal for connecting customers directly as well as giving them a broadband link they can move from location to location.

Google has been relatively quiet about its involvement with O3b since it first invested in it in 2008. But the search giant hasn’t been shy about its intentions to use new technologies to connect the billions of people globally that have unreliable or no access to the internet. It’s exploring white spaces broadband in Africa, and its ambitious — and perhaps crazy — Project Loon would set a wireless broadband network free in the stratospheric winds.

Google has said that satellites would be a component of its grand connectivity plan, and so far O3b and Google’s goals seem perfectly aligned. You only have to look at the name of the company: it stands for the “Other 3 Billion.”

  1. O3b’s 1.8 and 2.4m VSATS ( two at each site are required to maintain connectivity) use servo motors for satellite tracking and are made by General Dynamics. They are expensive and consume about 7.5 kw of power per day and require a minimum of 4 meters separation. If Kymeta can bring a flat antenna to the market that’s under $10 k, O3b can compete cost wise with a geosynchronous satellite VSAT price. … the GD Satcom antenna arrays are $100k, thats very expensive for a small aperateur broadband uplink. With a Kymeta antenna, if priced right, O3b’s service will become very competitive with geosat’s.

    Stuart Browne

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