For Google, space may really be its final frontier. Shortly after the company arranged for exclusive access to a new imaging satellite comes word that it's backing a venture to use satellites to provide broadband to a poorly served swathe of equatorial Africa. The project hopes to piggyback on the growing cellphone infrastructure in this corner of the developing world in order to provide service in areas that aren't really touched by fiber.
The new venture is a startup called O3b networks, named for the "other 3 billion" that aren't currently getting Internet service. Although the first deployments will be in Africa, the company hopes to eventually deploy its access model across other poorly served areas of the globe.
That model takes into account a couple of realities that are sometimes ignored in plans to connect the developing world. Equatorial Africa is vast, politically fragmented, and unstable. No private entity is likely to put up the money necessary to provide and maintain comprehensive access to fiber in the region, and assistance from other governments has primarily focused on wiring up academic centers that tend to be in the already-developed regions of the continent.
The solution, in O3b's view, is to go wireless and leverage the region's infatuation with the cell phone. The company plans to use the existing infrastructure of cell phone towers, and add hardware that enables 3G and WiMax networking. That hardware will then be linked to the big-ticket item in the plan: a series of low-earth orbit satellites, which will serve as a bridge to the wider world at speeds approaching 10Gbps. Should the full plan be rolled out, there will be a total of 16 satellites connected to over 2,300 earth-bound access points.
The Wall Street Journal indicates that Google is one of three backers that have put up roughly a tenth of the money needed to get the satellites off the ground, the others being the networking provider Liberty Global and HSBC. Plans for further financing are in the works, although they could face a challenging environment in the current debt market. Nevertheless, the plan is scalable; a partial rollout is planned for 2010, and more service can be added gradually as more satellites come on line.
The lure for Google is obvious: the more users, the better. Its site adapts nicely to the handheld devices that are likely to dominate the African wireless market. Still, this is one case where the company's claim to do no evil fits in nicely with its business plans. Local wireless telephone service and infrastructure are the closest things to a high-tech economy many of these nations have, and supporting and expanding that economy may provide a significant boost to their economic development.Posted on