Google's MEO satellite investment: not as barmy as Project Loon

The first satellites went up from French Guiana atop an Arianespace Soyuz rocket. (Had they been sent into orbit from the Channel Islands there would now be little more than smoking rock in the sea to mark where the tomato farms and off-shore banks had been.) The launch was completely successful, as O3b's Hawaiian, gateway reported a few hours later.

Amongst those investing in O3b are Google, Liberty Global and the satellite company SES. O3b has raised US$1.3 billion that will permit it to construct and launch what is described as "the first 12 satellites". It will also have enough ready cash to fund the operation until it starts to make money and profits.The company, which has already signed access deals with companies in Malayasia and west Africa, says its potential market is huge as 180 countries are seeking cheap high-speed fixed and mobile Internet connectivity.

However, as Scottie always declared to Jim Kirk, "Ye cannae change the laws of physics, Captain", and there is always a trade-off to be considered when opting for geostationary, MEO and LEO systems.

Geostationary systems cost more and have intractable latency problems. Medium Earth Orbit systems have much lower latency and might therefore be more attractive to mission-critical business users but the downside (and there always is one) is that coverage is limited and the orbital life of the satellites is shorter.

Thus the O3b constellation will provide coverage within 45 degrees on either side of the Equator. That accounts for many of the world's population centres - but certainly not all. Meanwhile the LEO system Iridium continues on its merry and espensive way providing coverage from anywhere on the face of the planet for those with pockets deep enough to be able to afford to access to it.

O3b's plan is to provide IP trunking and mobile backhaul services to ISPs and mobile operators and the company claims that the O3bCell service will connect cellular antenna towers and the core 2G, 3G and LTE voice and data mobile networks.

The next tranche of four more O3b satellites will go up in September. When eight satellites are in orbit the company will begin to offer early servies starting in November this year. The last four satellites that will complete the 12-bird constellation will be placed into orbit in early 2014.

The new system will certainly fill a niche in the market and, frankly, looks a lot more viable than Google's very own, and aptly named, Project Loon. This flight of fancy involves the use of a network of big balloons that will be deployed some 20 kilometres above the earth's surface to provide web access and that will, to quote the Cookie Monster's PR blurb, "connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."

In point of fact it seems very much more likely that Project Loon itself will be the disaster. The balloons will float freely, at the whim of stratospheric condition, over many countries, few of which will be willing inclined to help Google meet yet more overweening ambitions. You can imagine what will happen if any of them wander over North Korea, for example, while the likes of China and Russia are likely to take a robust view, and robust action over what they are already calling "spy balloons" entering their air space.

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