The first four of 12 satellites in a new constellation to provide affordable, high-speed internet to people in nearly 180 "under-connected" countries were blasted into space on Tuesday.
The orbiters, part of a project dubbed O3b, for the "other 3 billion" people with restricted Internet access, were lifted by a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kourou in French Guiana at 1927 GMT, according to a live broadcast on the website of launch company Arianespace.
The project was born from the frustrations of US Internet pioneer Greg Wyler with the inadequacy of Rwanda's telecommunications network while travelling there in 2007. He came up with a plan to bypass costly ground-based infrastructure like fibre-optics or cables by deploying a constellation of small satellites around the equator to serve as a spatial relay between users and the worldwide web using only satellite dishes.
Such a system would cover a region between the latitudes of 45 degrees North and 45 degrees South -- the entire African continent, most of Latin America, the Middle East, southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
There are already geostationary satellites providing this type of services, but at a prohibitive cost for many end-users in this region. Existing satellites generally obit at an altitude of some 36,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) above Earth, weigh in at a hefty four to six tonnes each, and take much longer to bounce a signal back to Earth, according to a background document compiled by O3b Networks.
The new satellites, built by the Franco-Italian company Thales Alenia Space, will orbit at 8,062 km and will weigh only 650 kilogrammes (1,400 pounds) each. Crucially, they will communicate with Earth four times faster, said the company, and six would be enough to assure permanent coverage. "O3b's prices will be 30% to 50% less than traditional satellite services," said the document.
And it added that a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo could move from being one of the most poorly-connected on Earth to one of the best. Project investors include Internet giant Google, cable company Liberty Global, satellite operator SES, HSBC bank and the Development Bank of Southern Africa. The first four satellites had initially been scheduled to be sent into space on Monday but the launch was postponed due to bad weather.
The next four satellites will be launched within weeks, according to Arianespace, and a final four "backup" orbiters early next year. To refine its coverage, the constellation could in the end have as many as 16 supplementary satellites in addition to the 12 main ones, said O3b Networks.