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O3b Networks: A far-out plan to deliver the Web

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So far, he’s received about $60 million in financial backing from Internet-search giant Google; Liberty Global, a cable-based data services company; and HSBC Principal Investments. The total cost is expected to be much more.

Internet service to remote areas from his satellites should cost about $500 per megabyte per month, Wyler estimates, down from about $3,000 per MB per month now via existing satellites.

High-quality service through fiber-optic land lines generally costs between $500 and $2,000 per MB per month, Wyler says. But the problem is that these lines don’t exist in much of the developing world. They are expensive to lay, and poor, rural areas are likely to be last to get them.

The new satellites will orbit at about 5,000 miles above Earth, much closer than existing geostationary satellites, which sit about 22,000 miles high. As such, the new satellites will suffer much less “latency,” the time lag when data travels between the surface and a satellite. That’s especially important for Internet traffic, where data is constantly traveling to and from users’ computers.

The O3b satellites will continuously circle the Earth. As each satellite passes a region, it will pick up the Internet traffic there and then pass it to the next satellite before going out of range. In theory, as few as five satellites could do the job. But O3b plans to put up eight by the end of 2010, when it will begin operation, followed by eight more to complete what it expects to be a strong and resilient network. The result, Wyler says, will be “much lower cost and much higher-quality access for neglected parts of the world.... It’s a leveling of the playing field.”

Less than 3 percent of Africans use the Internet, according to a 2004 study from the International Tele­communication Union, a United Nations agency. In 30 countries, less than 1 percent of inhabitants tap into the Web. (In the US, about 70 percent of the population goes online.)

Wyler expects local entrepreneurs will be eager to build local ground-based networks based around his satellite system. While O3b has not announced any local partners, “a lot of people are interested and excited and waiting for the capacity,” he says.

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