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OneWeb exec: Telco deals are imminent

Low-Earth orbit [LEO] satellite operator OneWeb is weeks away from inking agreements with telecom network operators for services like cellular backhaul and disaster recovery, according to a top executive with the firm.

"I have already spoken to at least a dozen CEOs of telecoms companies. I think they are all excited to work with us. Give me 90 days, and we will start to announce MoUs [memorandums of understanding] and agreements with all of these companies," Sunil Bharti Mittal told Via Satellite. Mittal is founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, part of a consortium that purchased OneWeb out of bankruptcy.

Bharti Global – the owner of Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel – and the UK government each hold 45% of OneWeb, with existing creditors, including Japan's SoftBank, owning the remaining 10%. OneWeb's total funding has reached $1.4 billion, and the company already operates dozens of LEO satellites, with plans to launch hundreds more.

Mittal explained that OneWeb is an ideal partner for telecom operators because the company will be one of the first to begin offering satellite-based Internet services via an LEO constellation. More importantly, he said the company is unique so far because it won't compete with its telecom partners.

"SpaceX wants to be in competition with them," Mittal said with a nod to OneWeb's main LEO rival. "They want to go direct to the customer. I am not going to make this mistake, because in my simple assessment, wherever a terrestrial network is present, there is very little opportunity for satellite. I am where they are not. There is no conflict."

Mittal pointed out that SpaceX was one of the biggest winners of the FCC's recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, walking away with roughly $886 million in government subsidies to supply Internet connections to rural Americans.

Mittal's comments on the topic are noteworthy because SpaceX backer Elon Musk specifically said the company's Starlink LEO constellation wouldn't threaten existing telecom operators.

"Starlink is not some huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear: it is not," Musk said in early 2020.

Interestingly, Mittal also addressed questions about other LEO aspirants like Telesat and Amazon, and whether there would be room for more space-based competition for SpaceX and OneWeb.

"It doesn't make sense to build another road next to an empty road," he said. "It doesn't make sense. We will continue to launch satellites. My own view is that two [LEO satellite Internet providers] is enough."

Others agree. For example, analyst Joe Madden with Mobile Experts recently wrote that he expects all of the current LEO satellite operators, including SpaceX and OneWeb, to fall into bankruptcy due to their inability to compete in terms of pricing and network capacity. He said their satellite constellations would then be purchased by other players and added into a broader heterogeneous network comprising a range of connection technologies.

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

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