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First quartet of low-latency broadband satellites now in space

Tropical backhaul pioneers build it and hope the world's poor will come

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Internet-to-the-world's-poor satellite backhaul provider O3b now has four satellites in orbit, ready to offer latency-free internet access to the three billion humans unable to see Facebook - by November if all goes to plan.

There was a day's delay to the scheduled launch, caused by high winds at the launch site in French Guiana, but late on Tuesday the first four 700kg satellites made it into orbit atop a Soyuz launcher.

They'll be followed by another four in September, when services are scheduled to start, with the last four of the 12-strong constellation going up next year.

O3b, which counts Google amongst its investors, is using a Medium Earth Orbit to reduce latency. That's despite the fact that MEO requires aimed spot beams on the birds, and motorised dishes on the ground*, to keep the connection alive.

Satellite broadband is nothing new, and some existing services are profitable. More than a million Americans rely on high-orbiting geostationary satellites for their broadband via fixed dishes, and live with the latency such connections impose, but that latency makes routing voice calls difficult - especially when added to the latency of 2G or 3G telephony.

The O3b service, which only covers the equatorial regions of our planet, is aimed at businesses who'll resell the access locally. Mobile phone networks, for example, are spreading rapidly across Africa but often have a hard time connecting internationally; especially in countries lacking coastline where fibres can be landed.

Constantly-moving satellite dishes might seem laborious, especially when they have to be used in pairs (one in use, one ready for the next bird to emerge above the horizon), but that's a trivial challenge compared to laying cables across a neighbouring warzone or similar.

The project is intended to make money. O3b's not saying when it expects a return on the $1.3bn invested, but this is a business proposition which believes connectivity will drive growth; the plan is that the growth will then provide demand for the connectivity and repay the outlay.

The first launch was branded "The Journey Begins", and it should prove an interesting journey. ®

*Commentard Rob H points us towards a pdf of the General Dynamics offering, for those wanting to visualise such a thing.

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