Satellite Speed: O3b and the Future of Connectivity at Sea

Gone are the days of the “communication blackout” from the moment you arrive on board.

Satellite Speed

Have you Instagrammed your cruise holiday selfie or checked into your shore excursion via Facebook? Perhaps shared a Hyperlapse of a stunning sunset at sea? If you have, you’re certainly not alone.

Gone are the days of the “communication blackout” from the moment you arrive on board. Whether travelers simply want to stay in touch with friends and family back home or just can’t escape the flurry of work emails while vacationing, the guest demand for Internet connectivity at sea is no longer just a luxury perk aboard modern cruise ships: it has become an industry expectation from guests.

It was in 1999 when cruise lines first heard the call for connectivity and responded with onboard Internet cafés. As smartphone and tablet use has grown exponentially, so too has the demand for near-instantaneous, 24/7 access to the Internet.

Enter O3b Networks, an emerging global satellite services provider with new technology that promises “fiber speed, satellite reach.” It’s about to change the future of connectivity at sea for passengers and cruise lines alike. Founded in 2007 by technology entrepreneur Greg Wyler, O3b stands for the “Other 3 Billion”—more specifically, the other three billion people across the globe who currently don’t have access to high-speed broadband Internet. O3b offers an innovative solution compared to its satellite-provider peers, paving the way for next-generation networks to reach areas normally cut off from such connectivity.


BallerinaWhile satellite technology may be complex, the premise behind what O3b offers is simple, but ingenious: if you shorten the distance between a satellite and its receiver, you cut down the amount of time (latency) it takes to receive that satellite signal, thus enabling faster connection speeds. O3b has placed eight Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites around the equator, floating at an altitude of just over five thousand miles. Compare this distance to legacy geosynchronous (GEO) satellites that orbit the planet at around 22,000 miles, and it’s easy to see that, on premise alone, O3b dramatically reduces latency issues.

Just how O3b delivers high-speed connectivity to remote regions is a carefully orchestrated symphony of intelligent satellite tracking.

Vicki Warker, the vice president of marketing for O3b Networks, describes the unique celestial arrangement, known as a constellation, of O3b’s smaller MEO satellites. Unlike larger GEO satellites’ fixed positions in the sky, O3b’s constellation is in constant orbital movement around the equator.

On land, two antenna terminals perform an artfully choreographed dance of catch and release: as one satellite crests the horizon, the first antenna establishes contact and carries the signal while the second antenna picks up the signal after the satellite crosses a certain point in its descent. The first antenna then turns back toward the horizon, ready to catch the signal of the next passing satellite. With this dual antenna configuration, the virtual baton pass of signal is seamless and uninterrupted.

“It’s like a delicate ballet in the sky,” says Warker.

This ballet is more than just for show: O3b offers speeds previously unheard of and currently unmatched at sea.

With eight satellites already in its constellation—and room to add as many as one hundred to keep up with customer demand—O3b delivers latencies of less than 150 milliseconds, where GEO satellites typically offer latencies of five hundred milliseconds at best. At peak performance, it takes two-thirds less time—about four seconds—to refresh a web page on O3b’s network, compared to other GEO networks. This means that everything from casual web browsing to streaming video and video-conferencing services like Skype are delivered at lightning speeds that rival even the fastest fiber speeds on land.


SatellitesThe idea for O3b was born in rural post-war Rwanda in 2005, when founder Greg Wyler grappled with how best to deploy nationwide telephone service to the country’s people but was limited by the nation’s crushingly slow Internet. In many parts of the world, broadband Internet via fiber is either impractical due to costs or impossible because of terrain. O3b eliminates both obstacles by taking the signal to the sky. And though the technology can also be translated for use by cruise guests, it’s about more than just offering the ability to binge-watch Netflix in staterooms at sea.

“We’re delivering large amounts of bandwidth to places like Samoa, Kinshasa, the Colombian Amazon—all over the globe,” says Steve Collar, CEO of O3b Networks. “‘Other three billion’ is a reference to that—that remains the core.” With customers in remote regions including the Cook Islands, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea, this kind of low latency, high bandwidth connectivity has meaningful applications that can dramatically impact the communities O3b reaches.

Take for example the Cook Islands, one of the most remote island nations in the world. Tourism accounts for 67.5 percent of its GDP and yet until recently, even trying to book a flight online from the island has been a monumental task due to its poor connectivity on land. Its remoteness has more alarming implications besides its lack of reliable Internet, such as the mass exodus of its young people in the last two decades.

With a population of just over ten thousand, less than 18 percent of residents are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, according to the 2014 CIA World Factbook. Its population growth has been in the negative since 1996, hovering at a little over minus 3 percent since 2009. Despite being an island nation where its residents have a 95 percent literacy rate, its young people leave in search of education in places like New Zealand and Australia, with few ever returning.

Internet connectivity via O3b has the potential to catalyze a cultural shift for the young people of the Cook Islands. The low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity that O3b provides now opens the doors for distance learning and video conferencing. For the first time ever, the Cook Islands now has 3G cellphone technology thanks to O3b, something that was once unthinkable due to its remoteness. “It’s a life-changing technology,” says Warker.

As for what’s on the horizon for O3b, Warker is excited to see how customers find new ways to utilize their technology. “It’s about putting together the art of the possible and getting people to think outside of the box about what a satellite can do.” Collar agrees. “I don’t think we’ve yet thought of all the possible things we can do with O3b,” calling it a game-changing technology for the satellite industry. Collar sees O3b technologies adapting to a number of other verticals besides their current customers in telecom, maritime, energy, and government, such as disaster recovery and response.

So the next time you’re tweeting your way through a cruise holiday, take a moment to appreciate that delicate dance of satellites thousands of miles above your head, and how that same technology has the potential to transform lives around the globe.

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