Before Google's Project Loon or SpaceX, O3b cites demand for its satellites

While big names like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) and SpaceX are pursuing grand plans to deliver Internet service to the unconnected, O3b Networks -- named for the "other 3 billion" who are unconnected -- is touting how its high throughput, low latency satellite network is already becoming the fastest growing in satellite history.

Steve Collar O3b CEO


O3b says it has contracted more capacity in its inaugural year of operation than any other satellite operator with a foothold in Africa, South Central Asia, the Middle East, South East Asia, the Pacific, South America, North America and Europe.

It's doing that with only 12 satellites in orbit, although it has plans to launch more. It's got 40 customers in service -- mainly in telco, enterprise and government -- and about 60 percent to 70 percent of the business is comprised of telcos. But while none of its current customers are U.S. mobile operators, CEO Steve Collar told FierceWirelessTech that the No. 3 and 4 U.S. mobile operators could be targets in the future.

O3b Networks operates a medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellation, which at 8,000 kilometers, is much closer to the earth than traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites. That means reduced latency and better voice and video quality than some of the geostationary satellite companies that have come before. It's worth noting that more than a few satellite companies have tried and failed to make a viable business.

But O3b believes it's found a winning path. Within the telco space, it's providing trunking in places with poor connectivity and backhaul within mobile networks. Within enterprise, the predominant industries are maritime and oil/gas, and in government, it's civil and defense programs. "It's quite a diverse customer base," Collar said.

Royal Caribbean is one of its largest maritime customers, where it has the ability to point satellite beams dynamically to follow the ships through the Caribbean, and it delivers "huge amounts of bandwidth -- 500 megabits per vessel, which is about 100 times more" than was previously provided to one of its cruise ships, according to Collar. O3b is looking to expand with Royal into the Mediterranean and into Asia.

Further within the telco space, O3b's constellation is used to connect islands and rural populations in far-flung areas of the world, similar to areas that Facebook wants to serve, possibly with drones, and Google's Project Loon -- now Alphabet's -- is pursuing with balloons in the sky and deals with LTE operators around the world.

A close up view of one of O3b's satellites.

"We can provide the performance of a fiber network but we can deliver it over satellite, so our latency is very similar to a fiber network," he said, noting that O3b doesn't have the costs of laying fiber that fiber providers have. "We've sort of innovated as far as the satellites are concerned. It's been relatively cheap for us to deploy but we also use a lot of spectrum and analyzers to get the sort of price point" that customers can afford. The demand reflects what he calls a big improvement in network performance.

The U.S. telco space is not a big target for the company -- yet. "Right now, we're really focused on the emerging markets," places where connectivity is poor and fiber infrastructure doesn't exist or performs poorly. Collar said they probably will be targets in the future, including potentially carriers like T-Mobile US or Sprint. "We're sort of interested in seeing how we can make O3b work for them," but that's not something that's going to happen soon, he added.  

"We think we've got exactly the right spot" between geostationary, where the latency is too great for a number of applications, and low earth orbit, where it requires deploying hundreds and hundreds of satellites and frequent replacement, which is costly.

"When a telco replaces their geostationary service with O3b and sees three and four times network growth, that story really sells itself," and that network growth comes from the fact that "all of a sudden their downstream 3G and 4G network are being backhauled and powered by a network with much lower latency. The performance of the network is just so much better," he said.

While O3b doesn't see a lot of direct competition now, it's well aware of others that are pursuing the dream of serving areas of the world that are not yet connected to the Internet. Those projects include OneWeb -- which O3b founder Greg Wyler is working on with support from Sir Richard Branson and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) -- as well as Elon Musk's SpaceX and others.

"I think what that shows is there is a big market out there," Collar said, and while 5G is a fair ways off and there is talk about potential interference with millimeter wave and satellite services, he is confident that the ongoing work among industry and regulators will ensure that there will be enough spectrum to go around without risk to existing satellite services.

Collar also noted that while the company was founded with the idea of serving the "other 3 billion," that number of is increasingly approaching more like 4 billion these days.

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