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Connecting 3 Billion People: The Mission Uncovered

By | August 20, 2013

      The O3b story spans multiple locations across the globe at different points over the last 20 years. From Boston, to Rwanda, to Paris, we look at some of the key events that shaped this story.

       

      Suffolk Law School, Boston (Early 1990s)

      Suffolk Law School was founded in Boston in 1899 and has been one of the state’s top law schools for many years. This school was inadvertently the starting point for the O3b story, and but for a chance meeting there, O3b Networks may never have come to pass.

      In the early 90s, Greg Wyler decided to take a summer class at the Suffolk Law School. The entrepreneurial streak that would later come to define him was already in evidence. He had started a business around that time to build heat sinks for PCs, which grew to become one of the leading suppliers to Dell, Hewlett-Packard and what was then Packard Bell. He would sell that business shortly after graduating.

      It was during these summer classes at Suffolk that Wyler met Tanya Dick, a fellow student, and daughter of John Dick, now the Chairman of O3b Networks. That summer the wheels were set in motion for the events that would occur two decades later.

      John Dick, who was the former Vice Chairman of European Ferries and Chairman of the Denver Tech Center would travel to Boston about once a year to see his daughter. He admits preferring to spend what little time he had there with Tanya, rather than meeting other people. However, Tanya’s persistence to get her father and Wyler together eventually paid off, and the two men that are so integral to the O3b story finally met at Tanya’s graduation.

      Wyler made a strong initial impression on Dick. “I found Greg very intriguing. He was interested in the business things I was doing and was asking me all kinds of questions. He was obviously bright, and we kind of bonded at that point,” Dick said.

      Wyler has no doubts that if not for Tanya’s introduction, O3b would likely have never happened. “I can certainly say that if I had not met John or had his influence or mentorship, there would not have been an O3b,” Wyler said.

      Dick eventually took the precocious Wyler under his wing, and would act as a regular mentor to the young entrepreneur.

       

      Rwanda (2001 – 2007)

      Greg Wyler, O3b’s founder, in Rwanda. Courtesy of O3b Networks.

      Rwanda made global headlines for a vicious civil war where the genocide that took place shocked and appalled a global audience in the 1990s. Rebuilding this war-torn country would ultimately sow the seeds for O3b.

      During a visit to Rwanda just after the millennium, Wyler had the opportunity to meet Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President. Kagame shared with Wyler his predictions that the country’s capital city Kigali would grow from around 350,000 people when he took over to have around 3.5 million people by 2020.

      “The city had no master planning, it was going to become a huge shanty town,” Dick says. “Greg said [to Kagame]: ‘I should introduce you to this guy, he knows how to build cities’. Greg gave the President my name and number, but didn’t tell me,” he remembers. A few weeks later, Dick received a call at his residence in St. Johns Manor in Jersey. “A strongly accented voice says she is the Rwandan ambassador for the United Kingdom and President Kagame was going to be in the United Kingdom for talks with Tony Blair and Clare Short, but he had two days free after that and he would like to come to visit me. I initially thought it was a joke, but days later the Ambassador came over to talk about such a visit,” he says. “At this stage, I did not have any interest in getting involved in Africa. I had had three deals in three different decades in Africa, all of which had gone sour because of the bureaucracy and corruption.” But, she convinced me Kagame was straight and had a vision of what could be – so I wrote letter of invitation and Kagame came.

      Kagame would visit Jersey and spend two days with Dick and Wyler. On the final night of his visit, Dick, Wyler and their wives were invited to Rwanda. They were given a military helicopter and tours of the whole country with unlimited access.

      “Kagame felt the key answer to the problems in Africa was education. People had limited knowledge, and politicians were keeping them from having access to more knowledge. His answer was to build as many middle schools as he could,” Dick says. “When he took over power, there were only 27 middle schools for 10 million people. Today, there are probably 700 middle schools. We spent a lot of time discussing the need to have high speed Internet at those schools.”

      Dick and Wyler started to work together in Rwanda, and Kagame would ask the duo personally to become involved in helping create a modern ICT infrastructure. The two felt strongly they could make a huge difference in the country.

      “Over time, we developed the strong feeling, that every single one of charts showing the impoverished regions, where there are huge health problems, child mortality problems, and minimal educational attainment, the key common denominator is a lack of communication,” Wyler says. “Communication is, in my belief, fundamental for enabling groups of people to grow beyond those issues but for some reason, no-one funds it. They will fund a trial; they really fund more things that are upper layer stuff. I am not saying that is wrong but sometimes there is money spent on immediate needs rather than structural requirements which will allow people to have the education and the interaction so that they can grow economically and support themselves.”

      However, connecting up a country like Rwanda is far from easy. Dick, who has for years been on the Board of Liberty Global, felt that this was something they could do. He had experience with cable TV but he had never been personally involved in laying fiber. Dick managed to get excess cable from Liberty Global which donated it, and it was then shipped out to Rwanda. He remembers the horrifying scenes confronting them early in the process. “We started running fiber optic cable while they were still placing genocide victims in the mass memorial grave site being built in Kigali.. It was a sobering situation,” Dick says. “Greg built an all-Rwandan team who had never laid cable before, but they learned quickly. This became the first fiber to the home project in Africa.”

      However, fiber was not the ultimate answer. While it did provide a connection between the first African 3G cell phone towers and the satellite link out of the country, the satellite link became an insurmountable bottleneck. As customers flocked to the network, the high latency link was strained even though it was one of the largest in Africa.

      Satellite had come into Wyler’s mind for the first time when they volunteered to help connect schools in Rwanda. Wyler laughs remembering that his first thoughts on satellite were to “curse” it. “I had a couple of smart university students; they speak Kinyarwanda or French, and I speak neither. They helped me connect schools via Wi-Fi to the university, which it turned out had only 256 Kbps shared among its 7,000 students,” Wyler says. “The GEO satellite link was horrible. It had high latency, it was slow, I could not believe people lived with this; I could not believe you could have so many people on this link that had high latency.”

      However, getting to know the students and understanding their passion, helped Wyler see past the difficulties and have hope in the project. “ I remember talking to this student Patrick Kariningufu, maybe 21 at the time. I was saying to him ‘I don’t think the Linksys router can be a repeater’. He said, in broken English, ‘You need software version 2.4d, and not 2.4c, and that will do it’. What a moment that was! To see through the language and culture and connect with intelligence and interest,” he says. “Then, and over time, I learned that with access to communications you can ignite the spark in so many people. We just needed to get the ball rolling. I have a theory: 10 percent of the world are geeks; I mean, they naturally gravitate to the logic of computers and systems – we just have to make it available. From there they will build the networks and logistic solutions which lead to education and the creation of things like water pumps, better health care and economic development. So, when I first heard satellite, and all I did was curse it. It was so slow, it had high latency.”

      But the concept of O3b was about to be born. After seeing the effect communications could have on the people it touched, Wyler felt the real problem was a lack of fiber connectivity. He explored running fiber throughout Africa but it was just too expensive to bring everywhere. So he began to try and figure out a way in which satellite could solve the problem.

      “If you give people Internet, and they communicate with each other, society will be helped. We started to turn our attention to the greater problem,” Wyler says. “The problem was how do we get trunking bandwidth, big pipes down to telcos and ISPs, not worrying about the cost of the ground stations so much, but focusing on getting the bandwidth costs really cheap and getting the latency out of the bandwidth. From there, local entrepreneurship can take it the rest of the way. The more we started to dig around with the concept of those goals, the mission became set: give entrepreneurs low cost access and they could build the distribution systems. It was really around 2006-2007 where I spent the majority of my time focused on this concept. At the time, we were one of the largest satellite downlink customers over GEO.”

      Dick remembers how they came to realize the bigger picture; that their project had the potential to be larger than what they had initially thought. “It occurred to us, not only would it be a solution for Rwanda, it would be a solution for all the other similar places in the world that were not effectively connected. That is how O3b came about,” he says. “We never went to Rwanda to make money but it wasn’t pure charity either. Our main goal going into Rwanda was to help the country and help those people. It is best to do something that can make money and pay for itself; that is sustainable.”

      With the concept now born, the key was to get the right people in place to make the O3b Networks vision a success. The company was now about to become a reality; Dick and Wyler were now ready to shock the satellite world.

       

      London (2004)

      In the early part of the last decade, John Finney, who worked for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, was sitting in his office when he received a “bizarre” call from Greg Wyler. “The first thing Greg said was ‘I want to buy a network.’ I thought it was a prank to be honest. I said ‘what sort of network?’ and he said ‘A mobile network in Rwanda.’ It was a surreal conversation. ‘But, I am in London,’ I said. He then said ‘I am in Rwanda, I am going to Jersey. Come and meet us there and everything will become clear.’ And I just went on a hunch,” Finney recalls. “After the first meeting with Greg and John Dick, I left inspired for the first time in my career. I remember my first contact was Greg saying I want to buy a network the way people say they want to buy a car. It was bizarre. I was thinking it was some kind of prank call but sure enough they bought a CDMA450 network and proceeded to offer Kigali real broadband for the first time and connect a swathe of schools with national fiber optics.” Finney would eventually become O3b’s chief commercial officer.

       

      Denver, Colo. (2007)

      Brian Holz was working for Ball Aerospace in Colorado when he received a call from a colleague saying that Greg Wyler – who he had never heard of – wanted to talk to him about an opportunity. After a flight back from India, Holz received a call from Wyler.

      “I get into my car to drive back to my house. About 10 minutes into a 50-minute drive, Greg calls and introduces himself. We start chatting about his idea and plans. The conversation lasts all the way home. I walked into my house, said a quick hello to my wife and told her I would only be a few minutes on the phone – remember I had been on the road for two weeks – and continued the call with Greg for another 20 to 30 minutes. I began thinking through the system and how to implement it in most of my spare time from then on,” Holz says. “Telling my wife I would be another 20 to 30 minutes is a fairly consistent story throughout my time with O3b!”

      Holz was effectively the first hire for the company. He is now the company’s CTO and a key figure in putting the system together.

      In December 2007, months before O3b was announced to the world, Holz was up in New York when he got a call from Wyler saying he would pick him up in an airplane to see a vendor. At this point, Holz was not a contracted employee of O3b. He remembers the meeting well. “We went to this company. I knew who the company was. I wasn’t working for Greg at the time. I walk into the conference room and there are a couple of people in the meeting I knew from past business. They wondered why I was there. Greg introduces himself and then says ‘This is Brian Holz, my director of Space Systems.’ I wasn’t even working for him yet; I hadn’t even had a job offer yet. But that is typically how Greg works. Someone who I knew then kicks me under the table. We stepped out of the meeting, I explained the situation, and told him about the great potential this system could offer,” says Holz.

       

      Boston (2007-2008)

      The O3b story in many ways started in Boston, and around 14 years on, it would return full circle and be back where it began.

      With any start-up business, one of the key challenges is securing the funds. And getting an investor like Google for the project was no easy feat.

      “Greg called me on a Saturday and said ‘I am going to be pitching Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist.’ Everybody in telecoms knows who Vint Cerf is, and having always wanted to work with Greg, my gut said I had to jump on a plane that night,” Finney says. “I booked a flight, flew over to Boston and I met Greg on the sidewalk so I could get the pitch for the first time. I walked into the room and Vint Cerf was on a video link. I was soaking the whole thing up, I realized right then this was something big. I flew back from Boston on Monday night, and resigned from my company on Tuesday morning.”

      The following year, just before Wyler announced O3b to the packed hordes in Paris, the company benefitted from a huge stroke of luck on the financing side: it managed to close $80 million of financing on August 14, 2008, barely a few weeks before the dramatic fall of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers. Wyler admits this was a huge stroke of fortune for the fledgling operation, and shows the value of having that little bit of luck at the right time.

       

      O3b’s Steve Collar, Brian Holz and John Finney at the Jupiter
      Building in Kourou just after the successful launch of their first
      satellites. Courtesy of O3b Networks.

      Paris (2008)

      At World Satellite Business Week in Paris, Wyler would introduce O3b Networks to the wider public in a presentation to the entire conference. Steve Collar, who was working as senior vice president, market and business development for SES World Skies at the time, remembers Paris well. “The most significant announcement in the satellite industry for years and I wasn’t there! I was outside having a meeting, the subject of which is lost in time, but I can guarantee that it was much less significant than Greg’s announcement of O3b,” he says. Collar looks back on events and admitted he was immediately attracted to the idea behind the company back then. “Just hearing about O3b word of mouth in Paris, I had a strong feeling that this was the kind of company that I wanted to be involved in without necessarily thinking that I would go on and work for them. I remember thinking that this was really cool, innovative stuff but also strongly feeling that it would work. I couldn’t think of a reason for O3b not being successful. It was certainly among the less traditional opportunities that we had looked at within SES but it was one that I believed in from the beginning,” he says.

       

      Palo Alto and Islamabad (2008-2009)

      With key hires in place, and the world knowing about O3b Networks, the plan was to now make the operation a success. The early days would prove tough, and despite the ability to attract investors such as Google, money was tight, and cost-saving measures were implemented across the board.

      “Greg and I wrote the first web pages for the company in an Internet cafe in Palo Alto that had free Internet. We walked up and down the street looking for free Internet. We spent two days in there drinking coffee and writing web pages. We used Skype religiously,” Finney remembers. “We used prepaid SIMs. I can remember being at the side of the road in Pakistan in 2008 working on a deal and buying a prepaid SIM in Islamabad. It tells me how creative you have to be to get something moving from the ground up. That is where we came from. We came from very limited resources. By the time we got the Coface guarantee we had less than 20 people in the company.”

      To Finney this is a very much overlooked part of the story. “What people don’t realize is what it takes to get to where we are. We had some seed money and some investors, but the money you get pretty much goes straight out the door. The money has to go straight to Thales to do the ATP [Authorization to Proceed] as it takes two to three years to get the long lead-time items for the satellites. When we got the first round of funds together, it went straight to Thales. What you are left with is a very tight budget,” he says.

       

      New York (2009)

      While Collar may have been disappointed that he had missed out on the initial presentation from Wyler announcing O3b Networks to the world, thanks to SES’s interest and ultimate investment in the company, which was announced in October 2009, he would get a first hand view of the company. Collar recalls a particular meeting during the SATCON show in New York – another satellite industry event.

      “Typical, in Greg’s style, he called and said ‘I am at this hotel in New York, come down and lets meet.’ We sat in the hotel for two hours just brainstorming on O3b and how a relationship between O3b and SES would work. We talked about synergies on the technical side but independence and interdependence in the market. Retaining O3b’s brand and uniqueness was something we focused on a lot and it’s pleasing to reflect on the fact that it has very much been the case,” Collar says. “It was one of the more formative conversations on the collaboration between O3b and SES would look like. It was like a stream of consciousness fairly typical of the origins of the business. We were so wrapped up in the discussion that Greg almost missed his plane, the two of us heading to the airport together so that we could keep talking about how it could work.” Collar would be appointed CEO of O3b Networks in February 2011.

       

      French Guiana 2013

      Approximately 20 years after the first meeting between Tanya Dick and Greg Wyler which would ultimately pave the way for the company we know as O3b Networks, O3b’s first four satellites were launched and the company is now well on its way. “I can see a point where we could launch 10 to 12 satellites a year for the next decade,” Dick says. It seems like 20 years in, the O3b story has only just begun. VS