Google-Funded Satellites Promise Internet Access for All

Google is getting on board with a new push to bring high-speed Internet access to parts of world still unconnected. The company has joined Liberty Global and HSBC to fund a startup called “O3b Networks” — short for the “other 3 billion” people who can’t yet surf the Net. The group will install 16 low-cost satellites to bring affordable access to emerging markets across Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The service, expected to be ready to launch by late 2010, aims to take the place of the fiber networks typically used in more developed nations. The satellites will actually offer direct connections to 3G and WiMax towers to areas currently without any easily accessible option.

Cost-Effective Connection

O3b will work by offering the access directly to regional telecommunications operators and Internet service providers, who can then provide both voice and broadband services to communities in their areas. Speeds will be comparable to those in America, and costs will be structured to be “cost-effective” for the emerging countries. The idea initially came from a recent African mission.

“[O3b founder Greg Wyler] helped pioneer the first commercial 3G mobile and fiber-to-the-home networks in Africa,” O3b spokesperson Stan Schneider told the E-Commerce Times. “That experience revealed the urgent need in developing countries for low-latency, gigabit backhaul services that can power high-speed data and voice connectivity for consumers, businesses, schools and healthcare facilities,” he said.

The system is being built with expansion in mind. O3b says once completed, adding supplemental satellites to increase the network’s capacity and reach new areas will be a viable option.

Google’s Goals

Google has long backed plans to bring Internet access to underserved areas — an understandable position, given the company’s focus on Web-based applications. More people using services such as Gmail and Google Docs means more eyes on Google’s advertising. That, in turn, means more income — thus leading to a win-win situation for both Google and for the communities that gain the access itself.

“O3b Networks’ model empowers local entrepreneurs and companies to deliver Internet and mobile services to those in currently underserved or remote locations at speeds necessary to power rich Web-based applications,” Google Alternative Access Team Product Manager Larry Alder said.

“We believe in O3b Networks’ model and its goal of expanding the reach of the Internet to users who currently have limited and expensive connection options, as it complements our mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful,” he added.

Global Benefits

Globally, the introduction of Internet access to emerging markets could have far broader implications. Granted, it won’t bring about instant world peace — but it’s certainly a positive step toward connectivity and deeper understandings of foreign cultures.

“Just the fact that there are so many more people-to-people communications directly across borders, [ones] that aren’t mediated through governments and diplomats and the traditional bilateral country-to-country relationships — I think that development is really interesting,” Elizabeth Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, told the E-Commerce Times.

“People get to see more of the culture and the daily life and the language — what people eat, what they think, what kind of music they like in all these other parts of the world — and that changes how we view those people,” she pointed out.

Connection Questions

The system still leaves some big unknowns, Hurd said, and those answers could prove to be critical to understanding the reach of its impact.

“There’s first of all a question of class and access, and then second of all a question of government censorship and who’s going to step in and try to regulate,” she noted.

Still, it’s hard to see O3b’s efforts as anything but positive — both for the areas directly affected, and for those who will see the effects from afar.

“I think it makes people feel like there isn’t quite as much distance between them as there had been when we used to just hear about people in history books, or read about them somewhere,” Hurd observed.

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