o3b-logoOn Wednesday, I had the chance to  speak with representatives of O3b Networks via conference call. I talked to Nara Sihavong who is their Regional Director of Sales, Asia-Pacific. Also on the call were John Dick,  from Regional Sales and Mike Serrano, Director of Marketing. Together, they updated me on what has been going on at O3b since the launch of operations in Sept. ’08.  They also briefed me  on the company’s plans in the Pacific.

ITU Ministerial Meeting in Tonga, Feb 17-20

ITU Ministerial Forum in Tonga, Feb 17-20: "Connecting the Unconnected"

O3b launched operations in September of 2008 with Google, HSBC, and Liberty Global as primary investors.  Initial focus of the company’s sales and marketing efforts has been on African countries.  However, O3b’s overarching mission is to provide improved connectivity for emerging economies, the “other 3 billion”. They have been quick out of the gate, signing agreements with several  operators & ISPs, including the Microcom, the largest ISP in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Coconut Wireless has covered O3b Networks here, here, and here.   O3b’s presence at PTC ’09 in Honolulu was the kick-off of its efforts in the Pacific.  It was at PTC ’09 where they revealed details of their plans to offer improved connectivity to the Pacfic Islands.

The recent ITU meeting in Tonga was part of this effort and the O3b team met with Ministerial level delegates to pave the way for further talks in Pacific Island nations. Nara then spent a week in Fiji, where he held meetings and discussions with the telecom operators.

He reports an enthusiastic response from the operators and adds that he sees the business development units within these companies moving with an urgency that reveals their understanding of what increased competition means for market dynamics.

Nara Sihavong

Nara Sihavong

O3b also met with the members of the Communication Ministry and outlined to them the kind of support  and guarantees government would have to come forward with in order to get services underway in Fiji.  For ministers in the region, O3b offers a new pathway to building up ICT sectors which can become generators of employment and income.

As a provider of backhaul service, O3b would not provide direct service to customers in the region.  Instead, they are looking for agreements with ILECs, CLECs, mobile providers and  ISPs.  For remote areas not currently served, O3b would be interested in talking to entrepreneurs interesting in building ISPs.

When agreements are in place, O3b will work with existing operators in Fiji, like FINTEL, Vodafone, TFL, and Digicel.  O3b is also in similar discussion with operators in other Pacific countries.  Any provider who signs on with O3b  gains superior quality connectivity to the international infrastructure, something that is only possible now through two very expensive options, the Southern Cross Cable Network or GEO satellite service providers.

With O3b, at the national level, governments do not have to wait for undersea cables.  A look at the following map of the region will show how O3b is mapping all the islands for service:

Proposed coverage for Pacific Islands (Please click image to view in Hi-res)

Proposed coverage for Pacific Islands (Please click image to view in Hi-res)

They can leap frog that process that can take years, take a look at what O3b can do and create a congruent domestic and international network to inter-connect all their remote islands:

How O3b works: A diagram of QuickStart and QuickVar Solutions

How O3b works: A diagram of QuickStart and QuickVar Solutions

O3b would provide the backhaul service and the telecoms would deploy wireless (WiMAX or LTE) or cable networks to reach customers.  Signing service agreements with O3b would mean realizing huge cost savings, which hopefully is the incentive that the incumbent telecom operators need to ensure wider propagation of  services at much lower costs.

View Slideshow with company info:

PowerPoint available for download here (approx. 3 MB)

3.5m fixed terminal for Tier 1 service

3.5m fixed terminal for Tier 1 service

The savings are significant.  Telecoms in the Pacific currently pay in the range of $3,000-$6,000/mbps, where O3b can provide superior service at a fraction of that cost: $600/mbps for QuickStart.

O3b is a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) operator meaning much smaller satellite dishes are required.  This is because the satellites will orbit about 8,000 km above earth, as opposed to the 36,000 km of existing Geostationary (GEO) platforms. This is an important distinction because it means significantly lower costs for ground equipment. The shorter distance that the signal has to travel to reach a satellite in MEO orbit is what allows for low-latency connections. As MEO technology becomes more widespread and cheaper, even greater savings could be realized. Learn more about what MEO and GEO mean.

A large part of our conversation revolved around the regulatory picture in the S. Pacific.  With the ADB and World Bank pushing for liberalization of telecommunications in the region, there is for the first time considerable pressure to change the status quo, which has protected monopolies and the high prices and poor service they offer.

According to Nara,  O3b’s technology offering necessitates a re-examination of plans for coping with future infrastructure needs. This moment presents an opportunity for telecom operators, regulatory bodies, and those at the ministerial level to look at their long-term planning and reformulate their outlook for the next 5 and 10 years.

O3b Service can help different providers address their needs

O3b Service can help ISPs and mobile providers address their needs

There are early signs of misunderstandings that can take place.  As the people who have to ensure successful implementation of liberalization efforts, regulatory bodies have a key role to play.  In Papua new Guinea,  regulators require fees for licensing satellite operators to provide service. This is a deviation from normal practice and could be a hindrance to O3b’s entrance into the PNG market.

The challenge is on for all stakeholders in the Pacific to be creative in getting the most out of this technology.  In my early posts on Ensuring Universal Access (Part I, Part II), I outlined how next generation wireless deployments should allow for ‘piggybacking’ for schools and emergency services.  For this to be realized, this is something that regulators need to demand of operators.

John remarked that the game-changing technology is an example of how innovation is being used to overcome a real problem.  Low-cost satellite offers the potential to deploy ubiquitous Internet coverage, dramatically altering the landscape of what is possible for the economies of these countries.  This is something not true of submarine cable projects, which can languish on the drawing board for years without any real progress.

For many Pacific countries who have been contemplating spending many millions to get undersea fiber connections , the dream of high-speed connectivity is a step closer to reality.  With O3b, they can pursue fiber-like connectivity at a fraction of the cost, allowing them to invest in other projects critical to social and economic development.

Where do we go from here...

Getting from here, to where we need to be...