O3b, standing for the "Other 3 Billion", has raised $60m from Google, Liberty and HSBC. However, they'll need ten times that to fulfill the ambition of 16 satellites offering gigabitspeeds to service providers in central Africa and the Middle East, without the latency usually incurred in space-based internet access.
The initial phase will be half that number, and is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2010. Latency is reduced by putting the satellites in a low-earth orbit, less than a twentieth of a second away at light speed as opposed to the half second needed to reach geostationary orbit.
That does make for more complicated antennae, as they can't be pointed towards the satellite, but it makes the internet a great deal more usable. The satellites will be orbiting on the equator, which is why O3b only needs eight of them (strictly speaking, they only need five) and coverage will be limited to within 45 degrees - but much of the unconnected demographic lives around there anyway.
O3b plans to sell connectivity to local providers, who can then connect locals over 3G, WiMAX or even copper cables, using the O3b satellite connection as backhaul.
The companies already involved have reserved the right to provide the rest of the funding, according to the FT, though other backers may be brought in later.
Internet access over satellite has a poor record - the speed of deployment has often seen ground-based alternatives surpass orbiting connection speeds, and only geostationary services have had any commercial success at all. O3b isn't planning to cover the world, which simplifies things hugely, and its aggressive deployment schedule and targeted demographic means their service is unlikely to be supplanted by anything ground-based - so it just remains to be seen if the disconnected three billion really want high-speed data. ®