The Google-funded satellite communications company O3b has transformed the cost of internet access in all those hard-to-reach places, by launching dozens of data-carrying satellites into space.
Previously suffering from what has been called ‘Digital Drought’, many of the poorer, under-served countries remained on the fringes of digital communications, far away from submarine cables that connected billions of people to the web. O3b’s satellites beam high capacity bandwidth directly to regional operators and local service providers, breaking the monopoly of the giant cable consortia and bringing everyone into the ‘net – from Timbuktu to Terra Del Fuego.
By giving high-speed backhaul to independent wireless and conventional operators on the ground in ‘dry zones’, the Google-backed enterprise has transformed the lives of billions of non-connected people almost overnight.
Cell phones are the device of choice to join the global digital skin – and all the mobile operator needs is a reliable satlink to sign on to.
Now nobody is left ‘out of touch’. The ‘other three billion’ are now online thanks to a ring of low-latency satellite repeaters orbiting the earth. Their ability to fully participate will spur a new era of global economic growth.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
The Other 3 Billion
Radical innovation to bridge the digital divide
In the conventional paradigm, international digital links to the US and European hubs of the Internet could either rely on submarine fibre cables or satellites. Both had their limitations. Submarine cables are costly and time-consuming to construct, and often command a premium price for their low-latency performance. Satellites, on the other hand, have the ability to blanket vast geographic areas and overcome terrestrial obstacles and political boundaries. However, satellites suffer from a physical delay; radio waves cannot travel faster than the speed of light, and the sheer distance of geostationary satellites – at some 35,000 miles altitude – takes a significant portion of time to route packets of data. Even if the round trip for a packet of data, or request and response, is less than a second, this can introduce perceptible delays in networks that already have other information processing delays (such as error checking) inherent in their architecture. This delay in long-distance networks is referred to as ‘latency’ and mitigates against the use of satellites for high-performance broadband applications.
Another significant factor in the use of satellites is the extraordinarily costly and risky means of getting them into orbit – on top of a highly explosive rocket. Although launch technologies have improved markedly over time, failure to achieve orbit insertion is still an accepted risk factor.
But obstacles are merely challenges to innovative thinkers. Google’s satellite partners have an approach that creates a new paradigm. Firstly, the constellation of satellites is placed in a medium earth orbit, a mere 8,000 kilometres high. Next, the satellites are deployed in packages of up to sixteen individual receiver/transmitter nodes on a single launch, reducing the overall cost and time of establishment. The resulting network has both peering (satellite to satellite) and repeating capabilities, with built in redundancy. Finally, the satellites are not designed to communicate with end-users on the ground, but provide high speed links to terrestrial operators. The cache and compression algorithms contribute to an overall network performance that rivals – if not exceeds – traditional fibre systems, but without the geographic limitations.
As so adroitly reported by Scott Woolley: “[This] may sound like the stuff of sci-fi – and indeed, the first age of wildly ambitious satellite projects, in the 1990s, produced a long series of embarrassing failures with names like Teledesic, Iridium and Orbcomm. The billions of dollars those projects burned through relegated ambitious satellite projects to the drawing board for most of this decade.” The new programs are equally ambitious, but more likely to succeed. The satellites now set for launch are like “orbiting iPhones: orders of magnitude more powerful and built to be Internet-friendly.”
2007: Submarines and satellites
More than 90 submarine fiber optic cables criss-cross the globe. But most of these are laid across the Atlantic and Pacific, linking the developed continents of North America, Europe and the Pacific rim. The heartlands of Asia, Africa and large portions of South America are relatively cut off from this information super-highway.
Many of the gaps are filled in by satellite. But satellites are mainly for military, GPS or broadcast use. Iridium provides global coverage for satellite phones, but at a cost that makes them affordable only for traveling westerners, and explorers.
2008: Connecting billions
What if we could introduce a satellite based system that avoided all the geographic obstacles of cables and wired networks? This was the question raised by O3b (for the Other 3 billion) – a question that could be answered by innovative technology.
In fact almost 4 billion people around the world are already connected by the end of 2008 – by mobile phone. Almost every phone these days, even the most basic, has some sort of data connectivity built in. They are all networked, but cannot easily reach the global web, for the rich interactive applications that are delivering so much value to those that are ‘always online’.
2009: Google surfs the wave
Google announces the introduction of its latest software platform – Wave. Google Wave could be the next generation of email, incorporating real-time chat, shared document editing and social networking, right from your online home page.
The only problem is, how do they get the other 75% of the planet’s active citizens connected and using their ‘killer’ applications?
What’s not immediately realized in these turbulent times is that these new offerings from Google can make loosely connected groups of individuals far more productive, exploiting collaboration to occupy the white spaces left by corporate collapse. And in typical Google fashion, Wave is free, and will soon be available on the iPhone.
2010: More bandwidth, please
Billions of people are now using the internet in subtle ways, mainly from their phones, or transparently, when presenting credit cards or checking transport schedules. Richer, multimedia applications like YouTube and virtual reality games have insinuated themselves onto smartphones too. But while the urban warriors of the technically advantaged nations take it all in their stride, the more remote inhabitants of the global village are feeling like second-class citizens.
“It’s all very well to market these facilities world-wide, but they just don’t work in Kenya,” says a local CEO. “We need more bandwidth!”
Africa has weathered the global financial crisis better than most, but the people on the ground need to be better connected to participate in the new opportunities.
2011: Twinkle, little stars
The Google-backed satellite company has done it. With an innovative network, a veritable ring of satellites that orbit the globe at a moderately close altitude, high-speed, fast-response international data connections are the order of the day. Whether you are in darkest Africa, or at the remotest tip of a continent, your regional operator has no problem hooking up to O3b.
Just as the cell phone liberated many communities who had no wired connections, totally transforming their ability to participate economically, effective satellite broadband will bring the benefits of ‘ubiquitous connection’ to billions of internet-deprived people.
Is this the start of digital democracy?