OneWeb's LEO Strategy Shows More Progress, but Questions Remain

Mike Dano
7/22/2019
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Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite company OneWeb is enjoying a big month. The company recorded connections of 400Mbit/s on its initial batch of satellites, and it also took the wraps off its satellite production facility that promises to build up to two satellites per day for the company. That event featured appearances from the likes of President Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, as well as U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

However, plenty of questions remain about exactly how OneWeb's service will work, and how the company might impact the broader telecommunications market, including 5G.

To be clear, OneWeb is not alone in the LEO market. Companies ranging from SpaceX to Amazon to Boeing have also promised to launch thousands of LEO satellites for global broadband services. However, OneWeb boasts a long history in the space and a prestigious pedigree.

OneWeb grew out of a desire by tech entrepreneur Greg Wyler to deliver Internet connections to schools in Rwanda. Wyler first worked on the LEO idea at Google but left the company in 2014 to join a startup called WorldVu that eventually became OneWeb. At WorldVu, Wyler briefly worked with entrepreneur Elon Musk, according to the Wall Street Journal, until they appeared to have a falling out. Wyler's company subsequently inked a funding agreement with Virgin Group and Qualcomm in 2015, and then, only days later, Musk announced his own rival LEO gambit via his SpaceX company called Starlink.

Since that split OneWeb has missed a few of its launch goals but also managed to sign up Japan's SoftBank as a $1 billion investor. Earlier this year the company managed to get a handful of satellites into orbit, and this week the company officially opened its "high-volume, high-speed advanced satellite production facility" in partnership with Airbus.

"On behalf of the FCC, I wish OneWeb and the industry as a whole the best as they set out to write this exciting chapter in the future of our communications infrastructure," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in brief remarks at the opening ceremony of the facility, adding that OneWeb's efforts mesh with the FCC's "twin priorities of closing the digital divide and promoting innovation."

OneWeb, for its part, is hoping to get partial service up as early as 2020 and a fully functioning global constellation by 2021. The first phase of its network will include 650 satellites and could grow up to 1,980 satellites (supported by around 40 ground stations for monitoring).

In its tests, OneWeb said it recorded connections of over 400Mbit/s streaming 1080p video, with a latency of less than 40 ms.

OneWeb has said those speeds will help it target a wide variety of market sectors, including selling Internet services to regular customers as well as connections for businesses and government uses. The company has also said it can supply backhaul connections for remote 5G cell towers.

However, OneWeb isn't providing many details about how it might take its LEO service to market. For example, to backhaul 5G OneWeb potentially might need to provide multiple Gigabytes of capacity, if that tower needs to support lots of users, at a price that would be economical for the 5G provider. And in consumer broadband, OneWeb isn't saying how much it might charge for its service or its receivers, making it difficult to determine whether OneWeb might represent a challenge to existing providers in remote and rural areas, or elsewhere.

Thus, it's still early days in the LEO industry, and how exactly the space might ultimately impact the wider telecommunications industry remains to be seen.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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