O3b solution for slow Internet gets a step closer

High speed Internet for American Samoa takes another step forward after O3b Networks announced last week that it has taken control of the first of its medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites that were launched in June.

 

Earlier this year the American Samoa Telecommunications Authority (ASTCA) signed an agreement with O3b Networks to provide up to 1.2Gbps of future broadband connectivity for Internet and other services for American Samoa, targeting a start date in the 4th quarter of this year.

 

O3b took over control and operation of the satellites from their manufacturer, Thales Alenia Space, this past Tuesday after successfully completing in-orbit testing.

 

"The handover was successfully completed ahead of schedule. Performance of all 4 spacecraft has been outstanding with all link parameters at or above specification. Thanks to the great work of the O3b and Thales teams, we can now look forward to our second launch with great confidence," Brian Holz, O3b’s chief technical officer said.

 

A second group of four satellites is scheduled to launch in September before the commercial launch at the end of the year. Over time, O3b would like to have 12 primary satellites and 16 backup satellites in the system. According to the O3b website, the company has raised a total of $1.3 billion. This covers the cost of building and launching the first 12 satellites and running the business until it becomes operational and starts to generate revenue, they say.

 

Currently, the territory is served by a single submarine fiber optic cable owned by American Samoa Hawai’i Cable Inc. (ASH) with the American Samoa Government owning 33% of the shares. The majority stockholder is Florida based eLandia, the parent company of BlueSky Communications.

 

In April, Gov. Lolo M. Moliga’s executive assistant Iulogologo Joseph Pereira told Samoa News that ASH-Cable had recommended to the governor that a second cable be built to support an increase in users of fiber optic.
 
“The bandwidth will be fully utilized and additional users without adding capacity will drastically slow the flow of information,” he said. “It is estimated that by 2015 the present capacity of the existing cable will be fully utilized, thus necessitating the new cable.”
 

 

Two options were provided to the governor on building a new cable link - the first was building from Fiji at a cost of $40 million and the second option was following the current pattern of tying to Hawai’i at $100 million, according to Iulogologo.

 

OTHER CABLE OPTIONS

 

Last week The New Zealand Herald newspaper reported Auckland-based Hawaiki Cable is planning to build an Internet link between New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and the US west coast with branches running to Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Wallis, Samoa and American Samoa.  The company said the system could be operational within two years.

 

Network specialist Ciena estimates the cost of laying new sub-sea fiber-optic cable can cost $25,000, even $50,000, per kilometer. (A kilometer is .62 of a mile.) Depending on different factors such as route and distance from potential branching points, the cost for a branch off the Hawaiki Cable could come in at the  $20-$40 million range.

 

Another company, Pacific Fibre had hoped to build an Internet cable between New Zealand, Australia and the United States with the same branches, but failed to gather enough funds for the project.

 

Hawaiki cable's team comprises some members from the group that attempted to build the SPIN (South Pacific Island Network) cable system but also failed to get sufficient funding and all the needed links on board. It proposed to link Auckland – Noumea and Tahiti with branching units for Norfolk Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa. SPIN was a French government funded project proposed to connect France with its overseas territories and ASTCA was exploring this option for additional bandwidth before it failed.

 

One of the contractual conditions of ASTCA’s BLAST project grant funding is that ASTCA must improve broadband capacity up to 3 times greater than it currently offers, at the same price it presently charges. (Read more about BLAST below.)

 

Industry watchers remain skeptical about Hawaiki’s viability, recalling these previous failures to fund undersea fiber cable projects in the last 10 years and the small island nations’ limited resources — not only for the initial funding, but the ability to make the systems pay for themselves once they are connected by providing infrastructure for developing tech industries and an enlarged customer base.

 

They point out that infrastructure can't exist without broadband backhaul (backhaul generally refers to the side of the network that communicates with the global internet). MEO satellite capacity acts as a much cheaper stop gap solution, so O3b comes in and gives the islands a reason to build that infrastructure and in 5 years, that infrastructure will create the conditions that will make the case to build a new cable.

 

THE BLAST PROJECT

 

One of the selling points that persuaded O3b to extend its project to include American Samoa and a contract with ASTCA is ASTCA’s BLAST project that is wiring American Samoa fiber optically. It is funded by a $10 million loan plus an $80 million+ grant through the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Broadband Initiatives Program. 

 

According to a press release issued in June by the ASTCA board of directors, the BLAST project had been delayed for almost a year but is now restarted with “the BLAST contract back on track and moving forward.” All ASTCA personnel queried by Samoa News have declined to comment on the reasons for the delay.

 

Perhaps related to the delay, Recovery.gov, the U.S. government's official website that provides access to data related to Recovery Act spending, shows that in ASTCA’s second quarter BLAST report ending June 30, 2013, project activities included the completion of a budget amendment approved by the Director of Rural Utilities Service's Broadband Division, Ken Kuchno on June 26, 2013. It also shows execution of a contract with Michels Corporation on May 22, 2013 for Outside Plant Terrestrial Fiber Build for $37,472,852.

 

The first quarter 2013 report notes a change in project scope from a phased approach to a sole source solution. “Outside Plant (Distribution Fiber Builds): Project cancelled on 3-28-13, work to be rolled into a sole source solution for the entire OSP terrestrial fiber build.”

 

Michels Corporation is an international utility, engineering, design and construction contractor based in Brownsville, Wisconsin.

 

ASTCA’s 2014 BUDGET PROPOSAL

 

ASTCA’s 2014 Budget includes proposed funding of $1 million to increase broadband capacity in support of the BLAST project by acquiring the use of O3b satellites.

 

Of note is $110,000 proposed funding for instruments and apparatus for two new projects.

 

An in-house call center project that will assist the “migration of traditional jobs to high-tech opportunities” is designed to avert a potential reduction in force after the transition where copper wires and switches become obsolete with the completed installation of fiber-to-home in the BLAST project. 

 

Along with this the ASTCA budget shows a new IT project proposed to save and upgrade traditional jobs and raise additional revenue.  It is seen as a “stand-alone and self-sustaining IT division” to serve as a gateway to digital and communications technology.  The budget document says it will serve 84 new positions.

 

In an initial Samoa News report on the O3b project in January we noted the “combination of BLAST and the O3b satellites will increase demand for service and hopefully ASTCA will focus its resources on ways to help the private sector turn this bandwidth into ways to develop business, beyond email and social networking.” ASTCA’s in-house call center and IT project designed to increase revenue and add upgraded jobs can serve as a model of opportunities for the private sector.

 

American Samoa will be the first in the South Pacific to have this kind of broadband access with a ‘first in line’ opportunity to grow our economy as it adapts to these changes.

 

SIDEBAR

 

Samoa News has plans on the drawing board to take advantage of improved broadband access including more video and interactive communication on our website and social media sites as well as migrating to “cloud computing” for our graphics and business personnel.

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