Ashok Rao, O3b Networks: Quick Thinking
30 July 2014 | Gareth Willmer
Can satellite really be the "fibre of the sky"? Ashok Rao, VP of product development at O3b Networks, explains how the operator is revolutionising satellite speeds through utilising medium earth orbit.
Ashok Rao says he has always enjoyed tinkering with electronics and software, finding fascination in the way that technology opens up new opportunities. Having gained a PhD in electrical engineering and spent 25 years in satellite communications with medium to large-sized companies, he was naturally attracted in 2012 to a startup that sought to use an innovative approach to shake up the satellite market.
This is how Rao finds himself as VP of product development at O3b Networks, which he viewed as offering a fresh and appealing proposition in a satellite arena that has changed little over the years.
“I was intrigued by the satellite constellation and network they had conceived,” says Rao. “It was very, very disruptive. There are two aspects to how O3b has changed the game: through its latency, and the fact that it provides extremely high capacity into a focussed area. It’s probably the closest you can get to a fibre link in the sky.”
O3b, which is backed by an array of investors – including Google, cable company Liberty Global and satellite operator SES – celebrated the anniversary for the launch in June 2013 of its first wave of four satellites and is gearing up to launch further quartets of satellites this July and early next year. The company is focussing on supplying communications to the 3 billion people worldwide who still lack access to high-quality connections in emerging markets and traditionally hard-to-reach areas in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific.
One of O3b’s key selling points is that its satellites are in a medium earth orbit about 8,000km above the earth, roughly a quarter of the distance of standard geostationary satellites. Rao says that this in turn means signals take a quarter of the time to travel to each satellite and back, with latency therefore significantly improved. Round-trip data transmission times are about 150 milliseconds or less, compared with over 500 milliseconds for normal geostationary satellites.
“All our gateways are very close to major data centres and it’s one hop to the satellite,” says Rao, adding that the speed and latency of O3b’s service are comparable with those of fibre, but the technology gets round the large amount of time it takes to finance and build a fibre network. He says that it also avoids challenges related to terrestrial factors, such as areas of volcanic activity – a particularly pertinent consideration in some of the regions where O3b operates.
Improved satellite latency has implications for voice and data services, and a gamut of consumer and enterprise applications.
“The difference in latency gives huge differences in application performance,” says Rao. On the consumer side, he says, a smaller delay means that web pages will load up much faster.
He points out that “with a Google Instant search, there are lots of round trips and you don’t get the instant high level of performance with high latency”.
Meanwhile, he says, Skype calls via O3b’s satellite technology can have almost the same quality as over terrestrial networks; sometimes even better, because of the single hop required to the satellite.
“The immediacy and naturalness is remarkable,” says Rao, while online gamers can also benefit from shorter delays. He adds that video-streaming performance is enhanced compared with traditional geostationary satellites because the related Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) slows under significant transmission delays, impeding the sending of consecutive windows.
On the enterprise side, says Rao, “there are even more benefits”, often because of the many back and forth “handshakes” required with the satellite when using applications such as Outlook and screen sharing over WebEx. There are also clear advantages for O3b’s technology in the energy sector, which often relies on offshore connections for communications, and the company is pitching its O3bEnergy product squarely at relevant customers.
Rao says the oil and gas industries are keen to use cloud-based services on offshore platforms, but that “geostationary services are slow and there is lots of frustration among users”. O3b, he says, can offer a service to help overcome these challenges and could therefore be crucial in an industry that plays a critical part in people’s everyday lives. Deploying fibre to offshore sites can meanwhile be a major headache and very costly.
“The capex for rolling out fibre to a new region can be from tens to hundreds of millions to billions of dollars,” says Rao. “It has lots of bandwidth, but you need to upgrade it.”
On top of that there is an associated opex for network maintenance. In contrast, he says, O3b offers the enticing prospect of faster deployment of low-latency services at a fraction of the cost. “We can treat an entire community of users exactly the same as on land. It’s also a morale boost for people who work out there for weeks at a time in a harsh environment.”
The technology thus has significant appeal not only for industry in general, but for workers who are stranded away from their families and friends for long periods and can gain improved access to services such as Facebook. In terms of deals with oil and gas companies, Rao says that “it is safe to say that they are looking at us very seriously and we will make public announcements at the right time”.
O3b’s proposition has similar scope in the maritime sector, with the company having struck a deal with Royal Caribbean Cruises to offer high-speed satellite broadband to cruise-ship passengers, again fulfilling a need where communications are often very limited.
Aside from motivations associated with cutting-edge technology, India-born Rao’s attraction to O3b has a significant philanthropic aspect. He recognises the challenges that remain in emerging markets and locations that are geographically testing for network roll-outs, empathising with the company’s focus on providing high-bandwidth communications to areas of the world still lacking in quality connectivity.
Rao says that technology entrepreneur Greg Wyler – who founded O3b Networks in 2007 – “realised that something wasn’t right” in terms of the huge disparity in services between more and less-developed countries and therefore pulled a small band of people together to create the vision behind the satellite network.
“The aim is to bring the internet to the huge community of people deprived of access,” says Rao. “This will change the industry and improve people’s lives.”
Lower latency will clearly play a significant part in this by boosting the quality of services. The company hit a major milestone this March, when Telecom Cook Islands became O3b’s first operator partner to commercially launch its satellite services. This has enabled low-latency, high-bandwidth services to the remote set of islands in the South Pacific, which has lacked access to fibre.
Rao says its partner has been “absolutely thrilled” with the service so far and points out that it took advantage of the enhanced opportunities by debuting 3G at the same time.
In June, O3b launched a second commercial service with an as-yet unnamed customer. It also has deals in place for services with providers including Somtel in Somalia, West Africa Telecom in Liberia, an unnamed ISP in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Digicel in Papua New Guinea, Timor Telecom in Timor-Leste and Norfolk Telecom on Norfolk Island in the Pacific. Many of these are currently in the test phase, with some set for commercial launch when coverage broadens after O3b sends up its next four satellites in July. Others are timing their introductions to coincide with new product launches.
Latency will come down further with O3b’s upcoming satellites because of the constellation’s increased density, says Rao: “This will not be by a huge amount and the main benefit is the increase in capacity, but there will be a 10-15% improvement in delay.”
He cites other potential ways of improving latency over time, such as setting up more gateways on the ground, inter-satellite links and, in the long term, even launching satellites in a lower earth orbit. “We’re looking at what we can do with the next generation of satellites. The drawing board is open for us,” he says. Latency improvements will be incremental over time, he suggests.
“We have the ability to keep on improving the efficiency of our satellites,” he explains, adding that there are also economies of scale in launching a number of satellites at the same time, and that “O3b really shines in cost effectiveness, in terms of cost per megabyte”.
Although the cost does not always match that of fibre – particularly if compared with networks over relatively short distances in North America or Europe – he says it is very competitive versus that of other satellites. He adds that latency between Europe and Africa, for example, is “pretty comparable” with that of fibre, with fibre latency partly dependent on distance travelled and the multiple hops between locations sometimes necessary on terrestrial networks.
“Our architecture is simpler,” says Rao. “There’s just one hop from Africa and Europe and then it uses terrestrial infrastructure.” He says the main challenges arise in terms of the network and infrastructure selected on the ground: “The challenge on the terrestrial side is the quality of the network. Our guarantee is always there.”
Rao points out that even in some areas that have fibre, the infrastructure can sometimes be poor quality or have interference issues, or it may only be on offer from the incumbent: “We compete with fibre all the time. Sometimes we lose, but we often win.”
Although O3b’s clear focus is on global markets that are less developed and harder to reach, the technology also has its uses in regions with more developed communications, such as North America and Europe. Rao cites the company’s link-up with the US government through a partnership with satellite provider SES Government Solutions.
This, he says, will be of interest not for primary connectivity, but in areas such as disaster recovery, research and development, and testing, as well as some interest in cellular backhaul. It will also support troop welfare and maritime operations. O3b’s service provides “very flexible beams that can be used very quickly”, says Rao.
And in Europe and elsewhere, the company’s technology could be deployed in occasional-use services and at events that require high throughput, such as the Olympics. Mainstream European deployment is less likely, although Rao says there could be some potential in Eastern Europe. However, the core focus remains on underserved global areas. Rao says that the ultimate ideal would be to bring quality low-latency communications to those who currently lack many basic amenities, echoing what could be seen as the ethos of the project.
“Connectivity is a fundamental enabler; it helps in empowering people,” he says.
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