Google-backed Global Broadband Venture Secures Spectrum for Satellite Network

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PARIS — A company based in Britain’s tax-friendly Channel Islands and backed by Google and the founder of satellite broadband trunking provider O3b Networks has secured radio spectrum rights to build a low-orbit satellite constellation to provide global broadband to individual consumers, industry officials said.

The company, which uses the name L5 in its regulatory filings and is registered in St. Helier, Jersey, under the name WorldVu Satellites Ltd., has picked up Ku-band spectrum initially planned for use by a now-defunct company called SkyBridge to launch a constellation of 360 small satellites for a global Internet service.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite orbital slots and wireless broadcast spectrum, shows L5 filings as promising to start service in late 2019.

The satellites, tentatively designed to operate in circular orbits of 800 and 950 kilometers inclined 88.2 degrees relative to the equator, have been given regulatory deadlines of between late 2019 and mid-2020 to enter service, according to ITU records.

WorldVu appears to be a Google response to the same question being asked by all the big global Internet service providers, search engines and social networks: How do you reach hundreds of millions of potential users residing in places without broadband access?

Facebook purchased Britain’s Ascenta unmanned aerial systems designer as part of what it calls its Connectivity Lab project, which is exploring satellite and atmospheric Internet nodes. Google earlier this year purchased Titan Aerospace, a drone designer of what are sometimes called “atmospheric satellites.” With WorldVu, Google appears to be adding a play in conventional exo-atmospheric version.

The ITU’s Master International Frequency Register is routinely peppered with filings — satellite networks in ITU parlance — that clog the system, hoard spectrum rights and ultimately never are built.

In the case of L5/WorldVu, there is reason to suspect this is not just another paper satellite.

For starters, WorldVu is located in the same small town where Greg Wyler registered and founded O3b Networks, which also started with modest support from Google and is now building a business of providing high-speed fixed and mobile Internet links to customers located between 40 degrees north and 40 degrees south of the equator. O3b’s mission, as the company likes to point out, is to connect the “other 3 billion people” around the globe “who have been denied broadband access for reasons of geography, political instability and economics.”

Joining Wyler in the WorldVu venture are Brian Holz, O3b’s former chief technology officer; and David Bettinger, a long-time chief technology officer of satellite ground terminal provider iDirect.

Holz’s departure from O3b at this juncture in the company’s history — a component defect on the first four satellites has delayed the launch of the second four, now scheduled for July — might be viewed as curious. 

While the current satellites operate well, their life expectancy has been compromised by the defect in the onboard component, called the centralized power supply and frequency generator unit.

In a May 27 response to SpaceNews inquiries, O3b said Holz “is leaving us for Google, which as you know is an O3b shareholder, but he will continue to serve on O3b’s technical advisory committee.” Attempts to reach Wyler, or anyone else, at the address listed for WorldVu were unsuccessful.

Holz has been replaced at O3b by Stewart Sanders, a senior vice president at satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, which is O3b’s biggest shareholder.

An industry official familiar with the move said Holz will remain active at O3b at least through the launch of the second group of satellites, and his departure was arranged in a way to minimize perturbations at O3b, which remains a startup enterprise.

“There is no way that Brian was going to do anything that would hurt O3b,” the industry official said, adding that L5/WorldVu should not be seen as a future O3b competitor.

“O3b provides low-latency broadband trunking to telcos and large mobile platforms through relatively expensive ground stations,” the official said. “WorldVu wants to connect the world with affordable links to millions of individuals not now on the grid.”

Google’s ultimate involvement in the venture “remains speculative at this point,” the official said. 

L5/WorldVu’s ambition is to succeed where previous global satellite Internet projects have failed. O3b is using Ka-band frequencies that were abandoned by the now-defunct Teledesic venture, in which more than $1 billion was invested before its backers threw in the towel.

SkyBridge had a similar idea, but in Ku-band. It too was abandoned for lack of financing, and it is the legacy SkyBridge frequencies that L5/WorldVu proposes to use.

The Teledesic and SkyBridge projects accomplished the key goal at ITU of securing regulatory approval for nongeostationary-orbiting satellite communications networks.

Both networks agreed to incorporate complicated power-flux-density adjustments so that their satellites’ frequencies would not disturb broadcasts from satellites using the same spectrum from higher geostationary orbit.

It is an issue that WorldVu will face — especially when its hundreds of satellites pass over the equator — as Ku-band is widely used by telecommunications operators who have priority rights to the same spectrum.

Just as important for L5/WorldVu is the dramatic decrease in prices for sophisticated satellite antennas, satellite power-generation systems and payload electronics. It is here that Teledesic and SkyBridge confronted issues that drove up the costs of the systems and ultimately forced their collapse.

“Lots of things have changed since then,” the industry official said. “Satellite technology is no longer considered black magic. Look what’s being done with Earth observation constellations like SkyBox Imaging and Planet Labs and the new generation of cubesats.”

SkyBox Imaging — a California company building a constellation of high-resolution optical Earth imaging satellites in which Google is said to be interested — and Planet Labs of San Francisco have both launched the first of their imaging satellites.

In addition to offering limited scale economies in satellite production, smaller satellites hold out the hope for lower launch costs when measured on a per-delivered-megabit basis.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article had said Facebook purchased Ascenta.