O3b, Cook Islands make the case for MEOsat backhaul

24 Jun 2014

Rumors of Google’s plans to launch a LEOsat network to connect the unconnected sparked not a little discussion at last week’s CommunicAsia event, as well as the CASBAA Satellite Forum preceding it. Much of it centered on Google’s chances of success, given the failure of previous LEO and MEO satellite initiatives.

If O3b Networks is anything to go by, Google just might have a shot.

Google is of course an investor in O3b, which aims to provide fiber-level data backbones to areas unserved by fiber via a network of MEOsats. Four satellites are already up and serving Asia, with live services in Cook Islands, East Timor and Papua New Guinea. And if the experience in Cook Islands is anything to go by, O3b is proving that MEOsats work like a charm when it comes to data connectivity.

“Telecom Cook Islands launched 3G in March, almost simultaneously with us putting up O3b, and the performance of the network is better than they expected,” says O3b chief Steve Collar. “They’re seeing usage increase over time.”

Collar told your reporter that the feedback from TCI’s 3G customers are a validation of O3b’s long-running pitch that MEOsats provide far better latency than geostationary satellites because they're closer to Earth.

“For most TCI users, a smartphone was just another feature phone for voice calls and SMS,” he says. “Most of the apps on their phones didn’t work. Now they do, and they’re using them like crazy.”

(In fact, TCI’s 3G may be working a little too well. Earlier this month, TCI responded to media reports of “unexplained” data usage from iPhone owners who were racking up data charges despite using Wi-Fi or even turning off apps. TCI said the problem was due to iPhones maintaining a dual connection with 3G data whilst also using Wi-Fi, allowing background apps to run without the user’s knowledge.)

Collar says O3b is getting similar feedback from operator customers in East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

“It’s all about latency,” Collar says. “The throughput is a big benefit, but the real performance differentiator is the fact that they were on a geostationary link and now they have the same latency they’d have if they were served through fiber. Using daily apps like Google Search or HTTPS web browsing, or business apps like ERP, Oracle, SAP, CRM tools, travel booking, Google Docs – all of this stuff is massively latency-sensitive, so it makes a huge difference when you get the latency down, because that’s what people care about.”

And while other satellite players are making various plans for broadband data connectivity via high-throughput satellites (HTS), Collar says at the end of the day, the value add for HTS will mainly be lowering the cost per megabit.

“That’s what HTS is really about,” he says. “You can’t keep providing bandwidth at the sort of price points that satellite has traditionally provided and expect to be able to deliver data profitably to your end customer.”

But after that, it’s all about performance, and that’s where geostationary satellites will be at a disadvantage.

“I don't want to make outrageous claims, but I genuinely believe there’s no way back to GEO once you’re on a lower-latency service,” Collar says. “Once you’re on O3b, there’s no going back. It’s like once you have an iPhone 5, there’s no reason to go back to an iPhone 2.”

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