Satellite broadband providers mostly fall into two categories: firms (such as Iridium) with satellites in geostationary orbit (thus service is expensive and slow), or new entrants (like OneWeb and SpaceX) promising thousands of satellites in low earth orbit (with service that is cheaper and fast — but doesn’t exist yet).
One firm, however, has already already implemented satellite broadband using a small and growing network of medium earth orbit satellites. O3b Networks (now part of SES) currently maintains 12 satellites at altitude of 8,000 km, which is about 1/4 the distance of geosynchronous competitors. This month O3b Networks plans to launch four more satellites from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz rocket from Arianespace. An additional four satellites are scheduled to be launched in 2019.
The network provides backhaul services to mobile providers as mobile 4G subscribers grow from 1.6 to 3.8 billion by 2020. The network also serves multiple niche markets such as emergency response and cruise ships.
The name “O3b” derives from “other three billion” — in reference to those on the planet currently without broadband.