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People across the developing world could have high-speed Internet access by late 2010, thanks to a new global satellite system.

The system was announced last week (9 September) by the Jersey-based O3b Networks, whose name stands for the 'other three billion' people in developing countries who don't have access to the Internet.

Their satellite-based infrastructure will bring Internet access to countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.           

Traditional communication satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of around 22,000 miles, which can limit signal strength and bandwidth. O3b will use cheaper medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites with an altitude of around 6,000 miles, which will provide a stronger signal.

O3b has already begun production of the 16 satellites. Once operational, it will provide speeds of up to ten gigabits per second, comparable to Internet access speeds available in the developed world. As demand increases, more satellites will be launched, according to Greg Wyler, chief executive officer of O3b Networks.

High-speed Internet access will bring a series of advantages to developing countries, including locally generated content, widespread e-learning, telemedicine and other enablers of social and economic growth, he adds.

Wyler says the satellite-based network will have significant advantages over broadband systems that use expensive materials such as fibre optic cables, and could potentially reduce the cost of Internet access in developing countries ten-fold. 

O3b say underwater fibre networks that currently form the 'backbone' of developing world communications are extremely limited in providing Internet access. 

But one of the hurdles to cheap high-speed access is gaining government licensing and working with telecom monopolies. Alan Jackson, chief technical officer at Aptivate, a nongovernmental organisation that provides information technology services for international development, told SciDev.Net that access is not about finding a "techno-fix".   

Jackson warns that satellite-based high speed Internet — compared to cable broadband — might not necessarily result in cheap, affordable connectivity for people in developing countries.

"Each telco [telephone company], which in several countries are effectively government-owned monopolies, effectively control the price … so you don't see this explosion of cheap Internet access for everyone … It requires a certain liberalisation of the telecom market."

O3b will deal with telecom companies in developing countries, who will then provide services to individual users.

Financial backers for the system are Google Inc., Liberty Global and HSBC who aim to tap into large, emerging markets in developing countries.