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Satellite Technology Aims to Bring Broadband to Developing Countries, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

By the end of 2015, there were 3.5 billion Internet users worldwide, or more than 40% of the global population, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  Africa is a frontier, where only about 25% of the population was online as 2016 began, up from 16% in early 2015.  Undeveloped sections of Africa and similar areas are the Internet’s frontier, where the largest growth in new users will occur over the mid-term.  Google and Facebook are both hoping to capture big market share in these regions by bringing wireless Internet access to remote areas where service is unavailable.

Google began the effort in 2012 by offering users in some developing countries free access to Gmail and simple searches through partnerships with cellphone carriers.  The search engine giant then launched Project Loon, , aimed at beaming Internet access from plastic balloons positioned 11 miles up in the sky.  Google balloons are capable of acting as flying base stations that communicate directly with mobile devices on the ground.  Recent tests of Loon balloons found them capable of staying airborne for up to six months.

Google is also investing in additional Internet delivery technologies, acquiring Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones.  In addition, Google is considering investing in a fleet of 180 small satellites orbiting at low altitudes, using a strategy pioneered by O3b Networks, Ltd.  The cost is thought to potentially total $1 billion.  Google is an investor in O3b, and Larry Alder, the Co-Leader of Google’s Alternative Access Group sat on the board of O3b as of mid-2016.

Low-orbit satellites are being pushed by O3b and other firms because they offer much faster Internet speeds than traditional satellites.  This is due to the fact that data is transmitted over a much shorter distance.

Cruise ships should be perfect customers for fast Internet access via low-orbit satellites.  RCL (Royal Caribbean Lines), one of the world’s largest cruise lines, is working with O3b to offer its passengers the ultimate in floating connectivity.  (Users report that speed is definitely higher than on other cruise ships, but still subject to the fluctuations that satellite services is known for.)  Price to guests is about $140 per week for 2 devices.  RCL claims that it offers more bandwidth than every other cruise ship in the world combined.  Guests are encouraged to Tweet, Skype, Stream movies (using accounts with DIRECTV, Netflix or Hulu), connect with friends or play Xbox Live with gamers worldwide.  Its newest ships even offer live, global gaming rooms.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been working on a cooperative called with Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson in an effort to cut costs of broadband via smartphones.  The hope is to lower the costs for a unit of wireless access to 1% of 2012 levels by 2022.  (That is, the organization thinks that current access costs are about 100 times too expensive to be useful to remote, extremely low-income people who currently are not online.)  This is an extremely ambitious goal.  Cuts might be made by improving network and smartphone software efficiency.  For example, Facebook is developing strategies to reduce the average amount of data used by its Android mobile app from 12 megabytes per day to 1 megabyte.

Facebook is also working on a fleet of drones to provide Internet access.  The units will be solar-powered, and will communicate with each other via lasers to distribute data, which can then be relayed to stations on the ground.  Facebook is using drones built by its subsidiary Ascenta (which Facebook bought in 2014 for $20 million).

Meanwhile, OneWeb and SpaceX are also working on cheap, low-orbit satellites.  OneWeb, a startup headquartered in Florida, plans to launch 648 small satellites at lower orbits than those traditionally employed by communications satellites.  It plans to target airlines and military customers in addition to disaster relief and emergency services.  SpaceX, a rocket manufacturer backed by PayPal founder and Tesla automotive executive Elon Musk, wants to fly more complex satellites.  While flying at the same low altitude as those proposed by OneWeb, SpaceX’s unit would offer faster data transmission speeds over long distances than that offered by land-based cable connections.  In addition to basic Internet access to rural areas, SpaceX could serve the needs of businesses with time-sensitive demands such as financial traders.


SPOTLIGHT:  OneWeb and Low-Orbit Satellites

OneWeb Ltd., formerly known as WorldVu, intends to be a major global provider of Internet access and related telephone services.  It is contracting for the manufacture and launch of a proprietary, low-earth-orbit satellite constellation to provide global coverage, particularly to parts of the Earth that currently lack reliable or affordable Internet access.  Its constellation will eventually consist of approximately 900 satellites that will circle the earth in order to enable affordable access.

OneWeb’s satellites orbit relatively close to the earth, allowing for better Internet access speeds, while they interlock with each other electronically, to create coverage over the entire planet.  Small, low-cost user terminals will communicate with the satellite network and provide wireless Internet access.  These terminals will provide connectivity with no change in latency (speed) during satellite handovers in order to ensure continuous quality of voice, gaming and web surfing experience.

Compared to traditional satellites, OneWeb units have fewer components, and are lighter in weight, easier to manufacture and cheaper to launch.  The satellites contain on-board propulsion and state-of-the-art positioning GPS sensors that ground-track their placements within meters.  The on-board propulsion systems are capable of performing maneuvers to steer clear of space debris.  When an OneWeb satellite nears the end of its service life, it will de-orbit automatically.  The constellation launch is slated to begin as early as 2018.  Investors in the firm include Qualcomm, Virgin Group, Airbus Group SE and Coca-Cola.  Space launch rocket services have been contracted to Arianespace SA and Virgin Galactic.  OneWeb broke ground on its $85 million high-volume satellite manufacturing plant in Exploration Park, Florida during 2016.



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