Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Leapfrogging the net in the world at large

I started out to write about O3b's initiative to radically extend the reach of the internet by a combination of satellites, WiMax and 3G cell service. I'll get to that [I don't think I ever did, but O3b looks to still be in business, so I guess there's still time --D.H. June 2015], but as so often happens I ran across something else while running that down. It's probably worth its own post, but it's in line with the theme of leapfrogging so I'll go ahead and mention it here:

There is now approximately one cell phone subscription for every two people on the planet -- pretty mind-boggling considering that about a quarter of the world's population is under 15. Now, I know for a fact that some people have more than one cell phone subscription and some portion of the under-15 set has cell phones, too, but still ...

Not only are cell phones competing vigorously against land lines head to head, to the point that many people don't even bother to set up a land line when moving into a new place, but they have a significant advantage in areas where wires are expensive to build out or simply haven't been. This includes large rural areas, mountainous areas, archipelagos (which, come to think of it, are just mountainous areas with a higher waterline) and much of the developing world.

This isn't just a cell phone thing. It's a general wires vs. wireless thing which should apply equally well to internet service. Which brings us back to O3b.

O3b is short for "Other 3 billion," though as far as I can tell there are more like 1.5 billion internet users (a lot, but fewer than have cell phones), which left me to wonder about the other other billion and a half. It turns out they mean the 3 billion for whom fiber is not likely to be an option anytime soon.

If you buy the premise that internet access is a good thing, and if you don't you're probably not reading this, then the bad news right now is that large swathes of the world lack the infrastructure to offer copper-based service to everyone, much less fiber. The good news is that whoever wants to build out the internet has a blank slate to work with and won't have to wrangle with telecoms and cable operators. Thus the notion of leapfrogging over the wired stage directly to wireless.

When I first read that someone was going to use satellites to cover previously uncovered areas, my thought was "why?" Putting birds up in orbit is expensive. Building radio towers on the ground is much cheaper. There have been attempts to bring the internet to rural customers via satellite, but as I understand it the results are cumbersome. Typically the satellite broadcasts your incoming data and everyone else's down and you use something low-bandwidth (maybe even dialup?) for the uplink.

But this is not what O3b is going for. Their tagline says it all: "3G / WiMAX Wireless Backhaul and IP Trunking." That's clear enough, right? If not, perhaps this Financial Times article linked from the O3b site will help. It certainly helped me. [you'll have to register unless their server arbitraily decides you've downloaded fewer than four FT articles in the last 30 days]

The problem these days is not getting billions of people wireless connections. Everyone has a cell phone, or soon will, it seems. The problem is, what is that cell connection connected to? Right now, in much of the world, the answer is "not much", or at least not much beyond the carrier's cell phone network.

This is where the satellites come in. The satellites connect the cell towers to the internet backbone. Since the messy work of gathering up the incoming data and dispersing the outgoing data has been done on the ground, the satellites just have to beam high-bandwidth, much more uniform traffic around to each other and to and from the backbone and cell networks. This seems like a much better match, to the limited extent that I can tell, and at least some major players seem interested as well (notably, Google).

If done right, this could be quite a Good Thing. Lots of people get cheap, fast internet access, the local carriers make some money, O3b makes some money and all those One Laptop Per Child laptops get something to connect to.

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