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Google plans to boost internet access in Africa

posted May 30, 2013, 4:24 PM by Nnamdi Eguh

GOOGLE’s plans to provide telecommunications connectivity on the African continent is gaining momentum. Google-backed O3b Networks will launch four satellites next month that will provide high-speed connectivity in emerging markets. The satellites would help speed up connections in densely populated areas and get rural populations online.

O3b, whose name represents the "other 3-billion" people in the world without internet access, will launch a total of eight satellites into medium Earth orbit, and aims to make the internet accessible and affordable to those who remain cut off from it.

The first four satellites will be launched next month, with the next four in September followed by a commercial service launch in November. Google has been working on a number of initiatives to get more people online in Africa. Satellite will help connect those people that mobile network operators and fixed line telephone companies are unable to reach.

The $1.3bn O3b satellite project, which also includes four additional satellites, will take the total to 12, boosting the economies in emerging markets. O3b’s regional vice-president for Africa and Latin America, Omar Trujillo, says the satellites will cover Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. He says customers can look forward to cheaper bandwidth prices of up to 30% and a quality service. About 50% of O3b satellite capacity has been sold.

Mr Trujillo says as the launch date moves closer, demand from potential clients has spiked.

In Africa, O3b is targeting oil and gas operators, as well as the mining industries and mobile network operators, to provide them with mobile backhaul. They will also need to assist them with the transition from the traditional GSM network to 3G network in rural areas.

"The advantage of our satellites is that they are positioned closer to the earth than the traditional satellites, addressing the issue of latency that companies experience when using other satellites. Our satellites capabilities are comparable to fibre," Mr Trujilo says.

This means that through these satellites, customers are able to provide cloud computing services, interactive applications including, relational databases and video conferencing, which were unable to be accessed via traditional satellites.

In recent years, Africa has been flooded with a number of new satellites but Mr Trujillo says while it may seem there is an oversupply of capacity, the demand for satellite is growing at a high rate because telecom companies still need to expand to remote areas. According to a report by Hamilton Research, there are over 500-million people who live more than 25km away from fibre in Africa. The first eight satellites of O3b will provide bandwidth capacity of 15-20 Gigabits, which can cater for tens of millions of people, Mr Trujillo says.

O3b’s other key investors include HSBC, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and satellite provider SES.

In South Africa, O3b has partnered with Mavoni Technologies, a service provider focused on selling services in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. Mr Trujillo says O3b is also in discussions with other service providers in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Intelsat, one of the biggest satellite providers, will launch its next generation of satellites in 2016. Intelsat has more than 20 satellites covering the African continent. The satellites provide broadcasting signal for pay-TV, telecommunications and other related services.

Intelsat Africa head Grant Marais says the new satellite will, among other things, reduce the cost of ground equipment. "The satellite will complement our existing fleet of satellite assets," he says.