Elon Musk’s Starlink is getting all the attention when it comes to satellite internet. But there is another company that is quietly putting together the infrastructure for a 2022 global rollout.
With its latest launch, OneWeb has once again stirred up interest in its global satellite internet service. This launch included 36 satellites that have taken the total number of OneWeb satellites in orbit to 146. The company claims that it could offer services in certain parts of the world as early as the end of this year. It must be noted that the startup had plans to set up a global internet service using satellites since 2014. In fact, Elon Musk was one of the people interested in pursuing this idea before he decided to launch the Starlink project at SpaceX to compete with OneWeb.
Talking about the launch itself, the satellites were taken into orbit by a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s far east. These are part of a planned 648 satellites that, in conjunction with ground centers, will provide internet connectivity to the whole world. The satellites are built as part of a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb and will be in a circular low Earth orbit at an altitude of roughly 750 miles.
After a topsy-turvy last couple of years, which included a bankruptcy filing and subsequent ownership change (OneWeb is now owned by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the UK government, following a $1 billion investment), OneWeb says it is one course to hit its 2022 target of global internet connectivity. While Starlink will be offered as a direct-to-consumer product, OneWeb is tying up with telecom players to bring its services to consumers.
The regions that will receive connectivity first later this year include Britain, Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Arctic Seas with a global connectivity expected by mid-2022. “We have what we call ‘five to 50’ (degrees latitude). So, that’s five launches we need to do in order to get to this coverage of basically the south coast of the UK to the North Pole,” explained chief executive Neil Masterson in a recent interview to the BBC News.
“By the end of June we will have completed those launches to enable us to be providing our service. But in total this year, we expect to be doing somewhere between eight and 10 launches,” he continued. Masterson was formerly the co-chief operating officer at business information provider Thomson Reuters and was only brought into OneWeb when it got out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November last year.
The fresh infusion of capital has meant that OneWeb is actively looking to expand and has hired more than 200 new employees since the end of last year. Manufacturing activities are also looking up at the company’s factory in Florida. But all this hasn’t come cheap and OneWeb is looking at more funding even after a $400-million influx from Softbank and satellite services specialist Hughes Network Systems earlier this year. OneWeb is a cool $1 billion short of what it needs to finish setting up its array of 648 satellites. It will also need an array of ground stations to support its satellites.
OneWeb has claimed that its testing program is moving ahead as intended. The company also claims that its satellites were providing downlink data rates of up to 500 megabits per second with a latency as low as 32 milliseconds.
OneWeb’s primary competitor Starlink already has 1,320 satellites in orbit now (Starlink’s different architecture requires more satellites; there are plans to launch 42,000 by 2027) and has started beta testing in some regions as well.
As of now, OneWeb claims that its plan to have a much lower number of satellites in orbit than initially planned is entirely deliberate and not a result of the financial troubles that the company has faced. The second phase for OneWeb initially included having 47,844 of these satellites in orbit. But now, the company has sought to bring it down to 6,372. This measured approach could go either way for OneWeb. Pragmatism might mean less money burnt and more of a runway for the startup, but the barrage of satellite launches by competitors like Starlink and Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper could put OneWeb out of contention. The acid test will be when consumers actually start using the service later this year. The company’s tie ups with telecom players will make a rollout easier. However, it will be consumer reviews that will decide if OneWeb or its competitors on the other side of the Atlantic are here to stay.