Google’s O3b Networks -vs- EASSy. Fight! Part 1

Google’s O3b Networks -vs- EASSy. Fight! Part 1

If you’ve been keeping pace in the Afri-tech space lately, you have probably heard about two of the biggest projects battling for the Broadband Title by being the first to bring ubiquitous broadband access to all of Africa: the EASTERN AFRICA SUBMARINE CABLE SYSTEM (EASSy?) project and the Google-backed O3b Networks satellite project. If you haven’t, well, sit back, open up your brain, let me lay down the skinny for you. I’ll give you the play by play, complete with my layman’s sideline commentary on what this fight means for you my fellow African Diaspora and those back “home”.

Now don’t be fooled into thinking that this is going to be a fair fight by Western standards—with rules of engagement, sportsman-like conduct and the perfunctory nod of gentleman’s honor, blah blah blah. Oh no, this fight, my fellow techies, is going to be dirty, profit-centered (no matter their respective corporate mantras), knock-down, drag out, slap your mama and yo’ granny, kick’em while they are down kind of back alley scuffle. There will be clear losers and winners, and most disturbingly, there will be collateral damage. First, I think I should introduce you to the contenders.

In the red corner, let me introduce you to EASSy. The East African Submarine Cable System was established November 2002. It was born as a “Business Manifesto” from a November 2002 East African Business Summit, that there should a submarine cable on the East African coast, to complete the international undersea fibre loop that connects the rest of the world. It’s a partnership of East Africa’s “who’s who” in ICT and Telecommunications players including Telkom Kenya, Tanzania Telecommunications Company Limited, Uganda Telecom Limited, MTN Uganda, and Zanzibar Telecommunications Limited – ZANTEL, to name a few. More here. The completed cable is to provide cheaper backhaul high speed bandwidth to the 21-member countries‘ telecommunication’s infrastructure via a newly constructed fibre-optic network of cables. Alcatel Lucent was awarded the contract to build out EASSy.

In the blue corner is the svelt, well-connected O3b Networks–O3b standing for “other 3 billion” individuals world-wide not connected by broadband. It’s a partnership backed by Google, HSBC Holdings PLC, Allen & Company, and Liberty Global. O3b’s strategy is to launch a series (17) of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites that will provide “3G/WiMAX Wireless Backhaul and IP Trunkin”—which in plainspeak means they make it cheaper for phone and internet companies to roll out high speed mobile internet and broadband to customers via satellite. Here’s something interesting, O3b Networks is helmed by none other than Greg Wyler. More on him later. Thales Alenia Space‘s satellite building expertise helped the design and launch responsibilities for O3b’s network.

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Ihejieto O December 21, 2008 at 12:35 pm

We are working with companies now to bring awareness to the issues of low-technology in Africa. Regarding the issue of adaptation, we made this 3-minute doc “West African Giggle” that tries to discuss the technology in an indirect fashion.

McTim September 25, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Hi TMS Ruge,

Check out this post about transparency in laying submarine cable:

IT points to a blog, discussion forum, and photo/video gallery and crucially, to a progress chart:

Would be very cool for the E.Africa projects to do as well. One can always hope ;-)

TMS Ruge September 24, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Hi guys, thanks a lot for your insightful comments. There’s enough material in here to warrant a follow-up article. I’ve extended inquiries for comment to some of the entities discussed. I’ll see if they have anything to say by the time the article is published on Monday. I’ll dig a little deeper into the issue and find out what’s at stake in this space over the next 18 months.

Also, every time I am in Uganda, there isn’t a BHH. I hope you guys have a great time. Is there one in December? I will be in UG for the month.


Benge Solomon King September 24, 2008 at 7:46 am

@McTim, definitely will see you at BHH!

McTim September 23, 2008 at 11:36 pm

@BSK It seems we are in violent agreement on these issues ;-)

AS for “some ISPs” capping service @ 200 MB per month, is this a certain yello company? In any case it can be seen in a couple of different ways.

A) This is an innovative product for “lite users” who want access, but don’t want to pay a lot for an “all you can eat” style connectivity. Pay as you go model enables consumers to control costs, .

B) This is an insidious “nose of the camel under the tent” attack on Net Neutrality by a telco meant to milk consumers by charging them per Byte .

In any case, clueful consumers/power users like us can see that this product isn’t useful for them. The question then is how to educate the folks who don’t have the same clue level. Hope to meet you at BHH on Thursday!!

Benge Solomon King September 23, 2008 at 3:59 am

@McTim, broadband to me, as least by Ugandan standards, is over 1 mbps, to the *internet backbone* not just to the ISP.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the costs of getting relatively fast internet connectivity in Uganda. I once did the figures and they were not pleasant. So maybe my use of the word “nonsense” was misleading.

I just find it very annoying for someone (read ISP) to come up with new versions of “broadband” every other month, and then some ISPs assign download limits of 200MB per month. I use that on an average day. For work.

Back to the main article, I’m not too sure if it’s good or bad in the long term, but the political wrangling in Africa alone has set us back so far it’s unbelievable. It’s a good thing there are foreign governments and corporations that see the potential we cannot see in our selves.

Thanks for your enlightenment though, McTim. I’m no ISP guru, but this information is very promising.

Isaac Kasana September 23, 2008 at 3:16 am

Thank you for shedding light on the undersea vs space race.
My observation is that LEO-Sat is a yet to be tried technology while undersea fiber is well tested technology. So I am inclined to keep my eyes on the several under sea fiber projects – at least for all major population centers of East Africa, even though hinterland cable laying has had its challenges (like people digging it up in some areas).

In the article, only EASSy and TEAMS are mentioned but I thought SeaCom was the first to commence.

McTim September 22, 2008 at 10:51 pm


Sorry, I only read the first page when replying to this article. You clearly have a good grasp of the situation. My question is this: Where are the boats? In other words, what is the exact status of the projects? Are there ships at sea, laying cable? if so how much has gone off the drums into the sea? There is literally no information about this online (yet). Would love to see some from TEAMS or FLAG or anybody really.

McTim September 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

@BSK What is Broadband for you, and why can’t you get it?

Whatever the answer to the first part of the question, the answer to the 2nd part is that it costs to much to get it via satellite.

For example, say you want 1 Megabit per second from your ISP. They buy that 1 Mb/sec at a cost ranging from ~2000 USD (for a large telco making a multi-Megabit purchase to 9000 USD(for a small ISP buying just the single Megabit per second. Now, they could sell that to you at cost plus x percent, or they could sell the same 1 Mb/sec multiple times to numerous customers in order to bring down costs and hopefully increase profits at the same time.

The bottom line is that they are selling a very scarce commodity, and the reason it is scarce is because of the cost of carrying the bits to and fro using scarce spectrum via Geo-synchronous satellites (which are multibillion dollar investments). LEOs (Low-Earth Orbit) OTOH, are much smaller investments, provide lower latency and use freely available spectrum. Fibre is expensive to lay, but provides several orders of magnitude more bandwidth.

@TMS Both fiber and satellites will be useful in the future, while there is an element of first to market/first mover advantage, it’s not a clear cut race to see which comes first. There are places that will never be served by fibre, which is where 03b connectivity will be useful, and there are circumstances where fibre will have market advantages.

For telcos, their object has traditionally been to maintain scarcity which keeps prices (and margins) high, ISPs globally OTOH operate in a very low margin commodity business. Currently margins for ISPs are higher in East Africa than they are globally. Both the o3b and fibre projects will bring their costs down, and hopefully these cost savings will be passed on to the consumers. Both will be disruptive and highly beneficial if/when built. I eagerly await both types of connectivity.

NB: EASSy may still be around as an idea and mulitstakeholder protocol, but the project to lay submarine cable to East Africa is now called smt like the NEPAD African regional broadband initiative, and due to political wrangling, the Kenyans are building their own called TEAMS and others are planning and building their own submarine links as well. So it’s not just a race between fibre and o3b, but a race amongst the various fibre projects as well.

Benge Solomon King September 20, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Being directly involved with the Internet industry in Uganda, (Node Six does hosting and web applications), I’ve been holding my breath for a very long time, waiting for true broadband, not the nonsense the telecoms and ISPs keep throwing in our faces.

And it’s a breath of fresh air to see some serious contenders coming up.

Very Interesting and insightful article. Can’t wait for part two.

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