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O3B Has the Potential of Boosting Internet Connectivity in Africa, But it is No “Fibre in The Sky”

13 December, 2013
ICT Africa News
13 December, 2013

As the anticipated launch of O3b , the other three billion, satellite communication network is nearing its expected launch, most of us are upbeat about the potential of the network to boost Internet connectivity in Africa. However, labeling the network “fibre in the sky” is a gross misrepresentation of facts with the potential of confusing the African public.

While more than ten submarine fibre optic cables have now landed on the shores of sub-Saharan Africa, representing submarine design capacity of more than 30Tbps, it will take a long time for many African communities to access that capacity. This is because the deployment of all the required terrestrial fibre necessary to connect submarine capacity to all landlocked communities will take time. Satellite systems like O3B will not only save as a stopgap measure to provide long haul connectivity to unconnected parts of the continent but will also save as an alternative to fibre in those rural areas where fibre may never reach.

O3b is a consortium consisting of the SES satellite company as majority shareholder, with other shareholders including investors such as the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and Google. The participation of Google in O3b who are also spearheading the deployment of terrestrial fibre in Africa underscores the anticipated co-existence of satellite and fibre in Africa.
O3b is looking to address the challenges of geostationary earth satellite telecommunication systems by using innovative new satellite technology. Rather than using satellites in the geostationary orbit, about 36 000km from the earth’s surface, O3b satellites will be in the medium earth orbit, half way between the earth’s surface and the geostationary orbit. This will significantly reduce latency and make it easier to implement VoIP and other latency sensitive applications.

The maximum bandwidth throughput on O3b is expected to be a significant improvement over conventional satellite systems and will range from 700 Mbps to 1.2 Gbps per transponder.

While the O3b medium satellite system will offer significant advantages over conventional satellite systems, it is not comparable to optical fibre. Assuming the 12Gbps throughput per satellite that is anticipated from O3b, it would require a fleet of at least 600 O3b satellites to carry the same capacity currently possible with only one pair of optical fibre.

In addition, O3b will still suffer most short comings experienced by other satellite systems – poor performance in bad weather conditions, easy of unlawful interception by malicious hackers and shorter satellite life time. O3b may also require new technologies to properly track the non-stationary satellites and how well this will work remains to be seen.

In a nutshell, while O3b is a welcome addition to the arsenal of technologies available to Africa in its quest to bridge the digital divide, it is important that we provide an accurate depiction of these technologies, including their strengths and their limitation.


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