Satellite backhaul gains good news for O3b

Edited by John C. Tanner
23 Apr 2010

When Google-backed satellite start-up O3b Networks announced plans to build a global medium-earth orbit (MEO) IP broadband satellite backhaul network for emerging market cellcos in September 2008, a number of analysts expressed skepticism in the idea, not least because of the shaky economic climate at the time.

Eighteen months later, O3b is still around, still funded and has been driving that point home with a number of key announcements in recent months.

For a start, it has a launch provider. In mid-March, O3b signed a deal with Arianespace, which will launch the first eight of O3b's 20 planned Ka-band MEOsats in 2012 via two Soyuz boosters. Each 700-kg satellite - built by Thales Alenia Space - will provide over 10 Gbps of capacity, which O3b plans to use to offer backhaul connection speeds starting at 50 Mbps and maxing out at 1 Gbps - which will be the fastest satellite connectivity speed in the sky.

Also last month, O3b signed a $47 million contract with ViaSat to supply the ground segment of the planned $700 million network. ViaSat will supply gateway teleports and high-speed IP trunking terminals, high-system development and installation, all of which will be ready before the first satellites go up. ViaSat will also develop a new 4.5-meter MEO antenna and a very high-speed DVB-S2 modem for the trunking terminals.

However, the most significant development for O3b in the past year may well be its most recent investor: satellite powerhouse SES, which invested $75 million in O3b in November 2009.

That in itself is a serious vote of confidence for O3b's grand plan to enable fiber-level connectivity via satellite for the world's emerging cellcos - especially considering the state of the global economy at the time the company began promoting its idea, according to satellite research firm NSR.

"In the middle of a financial meltdown and with the venture costing some $700 million based on uncertain ROI, the company faced prospects of incrementally losing its luster and value proposition," says a recent NSR research note.

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