Google’s other plan to connect the unconnected: satellites

O3b satellite

There’s a lot of attention focused on Project Loon, Google’s ambitious and bureaucracy-defying plan to blanket the Earth with internet signals from high-flying balloons. But there are multiple components to its plan to connect the world’s unconnected, and part of that plan is sitting atop a Soyuz rocket on a launch pad in French Guiana.

The first four satellites of O3b’s broadband constellation are ready to make their journey into medium-Earth orbit (MEO), where they will project spot beams down to some of the planet’s most poorly connected countries: from Rwanda to tiny Pacific islands. The project certainly isn’t Google’s alone. The search giant is part of a long list of investors and banks that forked over $1.18 billion to fund the startup. The others include satellite giant SES, cable operator Liberty Global, investment bank Allen & Company, North Bridge Venture Partners, Satya Capital, and the Development Bank of South Africa.

But Google invested in the O3b Networks right as it was getting started in 2008, showing that its interest in finding alternative forms of broadband isn’t a new thing. You’ve heard lately a lot of references to Google connecting the billions of “others” who don’t enjoy internet privileges. Well, if you hadn’t already guessed, O3b stands for “Other 3 billion.”

The middle orbit

There are a lot of key differences between the network O3b is throwing up and other satellite systems. Most satellite broadband outfits, like EchoStar and ViaSat, are high up in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth’s equator where they float over a fixed location on the Earth’s surface. Meanwhile satellite phone companies like Iridium and Globalstar are in low-earth orbit (LEO) practically surfing the Earth’s atmosphere as they zip through their high velocity orbits.

Soyuz rocket on Gantry

O3b is splitting the difference. It’s building a constellation of eight satellites (which it will gradually expand to 12 and then 16) in medium-Earth orbit, about 5,000 miles up and four times closer to its intended customers than a geosynchronous satellite. The higher vantage point means O3b birds can cover more ground than their LEO cousins, but they support much lower latencies (180 milliseconds from mouth to ear) then the big communications orbiters far above them.

Each O3b orbiter will support a total of 12 Gbps of capacity, which it will divide between ten 1.2 Gbps spot beams pointed at the ground. That may seem paltry compared to the 140 Gbps of capacity supported by Viasat’s new super-satellite, but where ViaSat has one bird, O3b will have eight, and as demand increases it can field more of them (it’s already building its next four).

Because these satellites aren’t in geosynchronous orbit they’ll be constantly passing overhead — when a satellite sinks below the horizon, another replaces it. They all travel the equator, meaning they can’t beam down to the upper and lower latitudes of the globe, but 70 percent of the world’s population lives within its geographic band, including most of the people with no access to the internet.

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O3b doesn’t plan on selling broadband directly to consumers. Instead it wants to be a backbone provider, providing the equivalent of a fiber link where no fiber exists. That means supplying backhaul to cell towers and IP trunking to remote ISPs.

The launch of the first four O3b satellites was scheduled for Monday, but weather conditions forced a delay. The new launch has been reset for Tuesday, but blasting satellites into orbit is always a tricky business — the launch could be pushed back further or rescheduled entirely before the week is out. O3b plans to send the second batch of four satellites up in September.

A network with limits

O3b’s network may be powerful, but in the grand scheme of things 12 Gbps isn’t that much (even when you multiply it by 8 or 12) when you’re talking about covering the majority of the globe. We’re not too far from the point where a single three-sector LTE site could support 1 Gbps of total capacity. O3b may be able to provide baseline voice and data connectivity to people who’ve been denied internet access. But it’s not going to supply the level of mobile broadband – and certainly not wireline broadband – we’re becoming accustomed to in the developed world.

O3B Teleport

We still don’t know how Google plans to use to O3b, but in all likelihood the network will be only a component of its larger plan to connect the masses. We know that through Loon, Google has big hopes of creating a balloon-based network, which would use terrestrial spectrum and many, many radios to supply much more capacity than O3b. Google is working with governments all over the world to turn unused airwaves between TV channels into usable broadband spectrum. It’s also experimenting with all kinds of Wi-Fi and small cell technologies in its labs.

O3b may not be able to deliver broadband to the world, but it could make it possible to bring cell towers and rural ISPs online in remote areas of the world that have never had access to such infrastructure. That’s a great starting point, and eventually other technologies can help fill in the broadband gaps.

Images courtesy of O3b

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