Hard on the heels of Google’s Project Loon comes the O3b network.

And just like Project Loon, it is focused on the billions around the globe, including New Zealand’s remote rural people, who do not have internet access.  Which is where the name comes from – the O3b stands for the ‘Other 3 Billion’.

“Depending on the market, we find that we are … between 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the other offerings,” said an O3b spokesperson.
Project Loon is trialling wireless internet access via a network of balloons floating 20 km above the earth. Following the wind, they rotate around the earth so there needs to be hundreds of them spaced some tens of kilometers apart, at each latitude, to ensure continuous internet connections.

The significant capital and operating expenditures to recover fallen balloons and to launch replacements raises a big question mark about the economic viability of the Loon service.

O3b launched their first four satellites last week.  They are part of a constellation of eight satellites which, like the Loon balloons will rotate around the earth.

At a height of 8,000 km above sea level, the O3b satellite constellation networks differ in a number of ways from existing telecommunication’s satellites.

The latter are located further than 35,000 km above the earth’s equator in a geo-stationary orbit.  This means that when viewed from earth, they appear to be at a fixed point in the sky. Our most used telecommunications satellite, IP Star, is located closer to Asian population centres so it is quite low in our western sky and unavailable for many people living in steep-sided valleys.

Another issue is the latency of existing satellite services.  Latency is the delay between pressing the ‘Go’ button and the instruction actually getting to its destination.  The higher the latency the poorer the quality of service and is most noticeable on voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phone services.  It is also an issue for on-line gamers and many trading systems where thousandths of a second can mean the difference between life and death, riches and losses.

So O3b offers much promise for those remote rural people who have little choice of Internet service providers.

Not that we should get too excited about O3b.  They will absolutely satisfy an unmet need.   But they are not a panacea to the broadband deficiencies of those living in remote areas.

O3b-satellite-coverage-mapFirst is coverage.  The O3b network is designed for optimal coverage between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south of the equator.  Which means that areas south of Oamaru and Queenstown miss out.

Each satellite ‘beam’ has a 700km diameter coverage, thus requiring two beams to give complete coverage of the country above 45 degrees south.  Having two beams appears unlikely which means that only around half of the country will be able to access the new network.

Bandwidth is another of the issues.  Each beam provides a fast 600 million bits per second (600 Mbps) in each direction.  Of the estimated 20,000 homes throughout the country dependent on satellite coverage, if only 1,000 downloaded a family picture at the same time, then individual speeds would drop to less than 600 thousand bits per second (600 kbps).  That is much better than dial-up speeds but still 166 times slower than the UFB’s 100 Mbps service to a household.

The major advantage promised by O3b is price.  “Depending on the market, we find that we are … between 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the other offerings,” said an O3b spokesperson.

Look for services to become available in around three months.