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Satellite-enabled phone and data services have often been considered a technology of last resort, due to relatively high costs and quality constraints. However, Dutch company O3b is pioneering the next generation of cheaper, more reliable satellite communications in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific—good news for a region where getting connected can be a major challenge.

Its title is straight out of a Star Wars movie–O3b—and it refers to ‘the other three billion people on the planet who aren’t connected to the Internet or who have to walk to connect’, according to John Turnbull, O3b’s Sales Director, Pacific.

The founder of O3b, Greg Wyler, came up with idea in the jungles of Rwanda in 2005, when Rwanda had issues with its domestic infrastructure and getting connectivity to the rest of the world.

In 2007, he and a small group of investors, including Google and Liberty Global, designed a new range of satellites which would orbit much closer to the earth than legacy geosynchronous (GEO) satellites and use a different frequency to provide much more traffic at a lower cost.

Lower orbit the key

‘Our satellites are in the medium earth orbit as opposed to the GEO orbit. The difference is this: O3b satellites are 8,000kms away from earth; the traditional geostationary satellites are 36,000kms away from earth,’ Turnbull told the 2015 PNG Advantage Investment Summit in Brisbane last month.

Signals travel a much shorter distance, so data reaches the user in one quarter the time: it’s faster, more affordable and provides greater broadband speeds, according to Turnbull.

O3b also launches multiple satellites on one launch, reducing its operating costs.

Turnbull says O3b has launched 12 satellites at a cost of about A$1.5 billion (K3 billion). As a comparison, Australia’s NBN Company contracted Space Systems/Loral to build and launch two satellites at a total cost of A$2 billion (K4 billion).

Asia-Pacific focus

Rather than a replacement for existing fixed line and transmission services, O3b’s service can be seen as complementary, providing connectivity to communities and businesses in remote areas which currently have no other way of connecting to the internet, and also providing redundancy for those using other methods of communcation.

O3b satellites operate within 45 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator, making the Asia-Pacific region its primary market.

‘We have 27 countries connected to O3b.

‘Twelve countries are now connected in the Pacific and leading the way is PNG. We have five beams concentrated over Port Moresby , Mt Hagen and Lae and we are looking to extend that to the outer island groups,’ says Turnbull.

In PNG, O3b’s service is delivered through Digicel PNG, which launched its O3b services in July 2014. Since then, it has increased the capacity by nearly 150 per cent.

‘Part of their drive was to roll out 3G and 4G services, not just to the main cities but to the outer regions and also to deploy ICT and enterprise services for the businesses in these areas,’ says Turnbull.

Other 03b users in the Pacific include Our Telekom in Solomon Islands, Palau National Communications Corp., the American Samoa Telecommunications Authority and the cruise liner, Royal Caribbean.

Medicine and education
The comparative speed, reliability and low cost of the service is allowing the internet to be used in new ways in the region.

‘No one should doubt the appetite for broadband speed internet in Papua New Guinea,’ says Imran Malik, O3b’s Regional Vice-President.

In neighbouring East Timor, O3b is used for tele-medicine, which it allows medical practitioners to continue providing medical services without the need to go to Dili for training. It has also meant they can access the International Learning Gateway, a data hub, which provides learning and training materials, which previously couldn’t be downloaded because the internet would time out or the data files were just too large to send.

Unitech PNG was the first university that O3b has connected globally for the delivery of lectures, conferencing, video meetings and job interviews. After six weeks, Vice-Chancellor Albert Schram reported he had ‘already saved K150,000 in operating costs’ on an initial investment of K1.2 million.