In 2007, when O3b Networks began planning a Ka-band satellite constellation orbiting at the unlikely altitude of 8,069 km (5,000 mi.) over the equator, the startup fleet operator was hoping to bring high-speed Internet to emerging markets in underdeveloped parts of the planet—the so-called “other three billion” for which the company is named.

While most telecommunications satellites operate from a fixed point in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the equator, O3b is banking on the nearness of medium Earth orbit to reduce network latency—the lag users experience when loading a web page.

“The driver behind the orbital altitude is to achieve a roundtrip latency of less than 150 milliseconds, which is the typical user experience on the Internet,” says Brian Holz, O3b's chief technical officer.

Designed with a coverage area that falls between 45 deg. north and south of the equator, the constellation's architecture will use 10 steerable Ka-band spot beams on each spacecraft to communicate with a ground segment that will require users to install tracking antennas capable of following the orbiting satellites, handing off from one to another as they pass slowly overhead.

Holz says the company is installing eight teleports around the globe, with a network operations center in Virginia and a satellite operations center in Luxembourg.

“We're investing in our ground terminals, including 1.8-meter and 2.4-meter antennas built by General Dynamics and a 4.5-meter system and 7.3-meter system available from ViaSat,” he says, adding that Comtech is providing modems tailored to support mobile backhaul while Gilat will supply networking hubs and O3b customer modems.

Despite the inherent risk in O3b's unorthodox approach to the system architecture—most communications satellites in geostationary orbit use fixed antennas that need little in the way of maintenance and repair—the concept has drawn the attention of SES, the world's second largest satellite fleet operator in terms of revenue. SES is now a major investor in the initial constellation, which has grown from eight to 12 satellites as a result of the additional financial backing.

Last year O3b, which is based in Britain's Channel Islands, booked nine customers, including an 8,000-passenger cruise liner owned by Royal Caribbean, on which it will train an entire 700-km-dia. spot beam. This year, in the first quarter alone, the startup has already booked seven new customers and is drawing interest from government and military markets.

“We have 10 steerable spot beams and we can lay that coverage down pretty much anywhere globally,” Holz says. “Our Royal Caribbean service is going to put 400 mbps to one ship. The U.S. Navy, for example, definitely does not have that capability, and we're one of the only operators that can provide it.”

O3b expects to launch the 12-satellite constellation in batches of four by early 2014, with the first tranche expected to orbit atop a Soyuz rocket to be launched May 27 from Europe's French Guiana spaceport in Kourou. That date may slip several weeks due to the spaceport's crowded manifest, which includes an early June launch of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to the International Space Station (ISS).

Holz says O3b is licensed for 24 satellites, the first 12 of which are being built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. The initial constellation, including 12 700-kg (1,543-lb.) spacecraft, plus launch, insurance and the associated ground segment, will cost $1.4 billion. Holz says the first eight satellites should produce $250 million in annual revenue once they become operational later this year.

If all goes according to plan, O3b expects to organize a competition for eight more satellites beginning in the first quarter of 2014, though he says the company is pleased with Thales Alenia Space's work to date.

“They have a good capability in this class of satellite, and a good value proposition to us,” he says.

The Cannes, France-based company is developing a new EliteBus platform that incorporates the best elements of the O3b development with those of similarly-sized satellites Thales Alenia Space is building for Covington, La.-based startup GlobalStar and fleet operator Iridium, resulting in production savings the company says will be passed on to customers.

“EliteBus is for telecom and Earth observation, and we are now in discussions with some customers in the U.S., and elsewhere, to use this competitively priced platform,” says Thales Alenia Space President and CEO Jean-Loic Galle.

Galle says the company plans to pitch the EliteBus platform to the French defense ministry, which is considering development of an operational signals intelligence constellation of three spacecraft known as Ceres. Thales Alenia Space would provide the platform and payload, while EADS Astrium Satellites would serve as integrator.