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The Man Who Sold The Sky

It's All About MEO

O3B Networks plans to offer several kinds of communications infrastructure to companies in these regions.

"We will connect the head of a DSL system to the global Internet," Wyler explains. "The copper line in your house runs (along with every other house in your neighborhood) to a DSL Head End (DSLAM), which then aggregates all the copper lines onto a 'trunk line' into the Internet cloud. By reducing the costs of that trunk cloud, users can be apportioned greater speeds. By reducing the latency, users will be able to use interactive Web 2.0, Web OS, etc. in ways they just can't today."

The point about latency needs further explanation. After all, isn't sending signals clear out to a satellite too slow for Web 2.0 interactivity?

Not if you choose your orbit wisely, and that's why O3B Networks will deploy in Medium Earth Orbit, from which you can get a user experience comparable to DSL or fiber. O3B Networks has partnered with Thales Alenia Space to build the satellites, each of which will have up to 12.5 Gbps capacity. The satellites have steerable antennas and will operate in the Ka-band spectrum. The entire system is designed as a RAID, each satellite having internal and external redundancy.

The plan is to use one launch to distribute eight satellites in MEO. That's three more than the minimum required for full coverage around the equator. One downside of MEO is that the orbit will decay, so the satellites have a finite lifetime, and that has to be figured into the business model.

Wyler cites another example of what the company will provide: "We will connect a 3G/WiMAX tower directly to the Web. This is called 'mobile backhaul.' With a small kit at the base of a tower, that tower will share from a pool of up to 350 Mbps. The tower will not need to have line of sight to other towers and can be placed in rural or urban areas. The cost of reaching the Web from that tower will be reduced by 4× and capital expenditures for equipment will be reduced by 5×." Each satellite, Wyler explains, will support somewhere around a million users as the core network for terrestrial topologies—DSL, Cable Modem, 3G, WiMAX—and subsequent deployments of satellites beyond the first eight would be "timed to meet the demands of the markets." There's a lot of room up there in MEO.

If You Build It

What could universally accessible, high-quality broadband Internet connectivity mean to the Third World?

"Strong communications/Internet affects everyone," Wyler says. Direct participation of developers in Web 2.0 development is one case. "Today, most of the world cannot either (reasonably) download an Eclipse development platform, a Java toolkit, use a VPN, or even use YouTube. This prevents these economies from participating in development of the tool kits for software development, using the tool kits, utilizing online business applications, and participating in the interactive socio-political aspects of the web."

But the benefits of Internet access go beyond the individual who's logging on. "Clearly there is benefit to the family of the person who has new international income from web development, software sales, etc." A strong communications backbone is also necessary "to have an orderly administration of government, to reach the police stations, customs houses, court houses, schools, libraries, registries of deeds...This allows for a better transparency and smoother administration even for people who don't use computers."

The UN and NGOs need this sort of infrastructure in the Third World, too. "Recently the UN highlighted a renewed focus on its battle against malaria. Drug distribution to thousands of health centers, inventory control, validating use, and verifying results require strong IT infrastructure. Unfortunately today, in most parts of the world, the communications infrastructure for this is nonexistent or prohibitively expensive."

Hooking up the Third World would have enormous economic and humanitarian consequences.

It would be ambitious indeed if Wyler was planning to provide Internet and wireless service directly to 3 billion customers. But that's not the plan. O3B Networks is intended to be strictly a wholesaler of connectivity to local ISPs and fixed-line and mobile providers for, for example, cellular and WiMAX backhaul. Wyler draws an analogy with the back-end infrastructure that let stores like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Staples operate. "O3B Networks," he says, "is about creating that core infrastructure globally on which the back-end systems can operate, improving logistics, reducing costs, and improving access." Other companies, O3B Networks customers, would build on that infrastructure to do things from improving education and healthcare to developing or supporting new industries.

Merely providing the Internet infrastructure for this market is extremely ambitious. The O3B Networks satellites will span roughly 40 degrees either side of the equator, taking in all of Africa, most of South and Central America, the Middle East, India, most of China, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. That includes most of the world's population, the most untapped markets worldwide, and three of the four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) that Goldman Sachs predicted could eclipse the economies of the world's richest countries in 40 years.

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