OneWeb nears global internet coverage

OneWeb nears global internet coverage
OneWeb nears global internet coverage

OneWeb, a London-based satellite operator, has launched 40 more spacecraft, bringing its in-orbit broadband constellation to over 580. With one more launch planned, OneWeb will have enough satellites to provide internet access globally. The company rapidly recovered after a financial collapse due to COVID-19, and since then, its scale-up has been remarkable, serving customers in 15 countries and accumulating $800 million in backlog bookings.

CEO Neil Masterson said they are excited to expand globally and showcase the network system’s capabilities.

Newly launched satellites need time to reach their proper position 1,200km above Earth, undergo testing, and become operational. The batches launched last year will extend coverage to the lower 48 US states and the northern Mediterranean by the end of May, and to 25 degrees North by the end of summer.

The final launches will provide broadband connectivity to users at the equator by year-end. OneWeb plans to have around 40 nodes operating by the end of 2023. The company is based in a refurbished BBC building on the site of the 1908 summer Olympics.

The operation inside the silver-coloured building is so extraordinary that most passersby are unaware of it. Only Elon Musk’s Starlink flies more active spacecraft in orbit than OneWeb, which has a satellite fleet divided into 12 separate planes and managed round the clock with the help of automation.

Francesco Sacconi, the director of satellite operations, explained that they rely heavily on automation, as it is impossible to check every satellite on every pass, but the system alerts them if there is any issue.

Similarly, the broadband connections transmitted through the satellites are continuously monitored. OneWeb’s network operations director, Matt Hall, stated that they can inject synthetic data packets into the network and identify any potential degradation of the service, such as packet loss, latency, jitter, and packets arriving out of sequence.

Unlike Starlink, OneWeb does not offer broadband connections directly to individual users, but instead, its clients are mainly telecoms companies that provide internet services. These companies can use the connectivity to expand or supplement their mobile phone network infrastructure.

The typical service plan for a user’s terminal or antenna system could include 75 megabits per second (MBPS) download and 15MBPS upload, but both OneWeb and Starlink emphasize the low latency aspect of their services.

Similarly, OneWeb is constantly monitoring the broadband connections transmitted through its satellites. Matt Hall, who oversees the network operations, stated, “We can send synthetic data packets into the network to detect any issues such as packet loss, latency, jitter, or out-of-order packets that may affect the service’s performance.”

In contrast to Starlink, OneWeb’s primary customers are not individual users, but telecommunications companies that provide internet service. These companies may also use the connectivity to enhance or extend their mobile network infrastructure.

A typical service plan for a user’s terminal or antenna system may include a download speed of 75 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 15 Mbps. OneWeb and Starlink both emphasize low latency, which refers to the reduced time it takes for data to travel across the network and back.

The “ping” time for traditional geostationary (GEO) communication satellites, which are positioned 36,000km above the Earth, can be around 700 milliseconds. In contrast, the new low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites have a significantly lower ping time of about 80 milliseconds.

Senior sales engineer David Fuller said that the low latency of OneWeb’s broadband connections enables real-time Microsoft Teams calls without any delay, lag or interruptions, allowing videos and voices to run smoothly.

With OneWeb’s LEO satellites, it is possible to use Office applications where a team can collaborate on a document simultaneously. This is not feasible with GEO satellites.

OneWeb plans to request proposals from the industry later this year to build the next generation of satellites. The new satellites will be larger and more powerful, weighing approximately half a tonne, compared to the current 150kg. However, OneWeb is not expected to purchase large numbers of satellites.

Previously, OneWeb had considered launching thousands of satellites, but the current plan is to operate fewer than 1,000 satellites in the operational constellation.

The main goal for 2023 is to finalize the merger with Eutelsat, a satellite operator based in Paris that is known for broadcasting thousands of TV channels worldwide. The merger has sparked speculation that the newly formed company may seek a role in the EU’s planned Iris-Squared connectivity constellation, which is worth billions of euros.

As a British company, it may have seemed unlikely for OneWeb to be involved due to Brexit, but as an Anglo-French company, it could be considered differently.

CEO Neil Masterson refuses to comment on any discussions but states that the topic is being considered, especially given OneWeb’s experience.

During an interview with BBC News, Neil Masterson, the CEO of OneWeb, commented on the challenges of building constellations, stating that it is not an easy task. He noted that there are currently only two LEO constellations in operation, OneWeb and Starlink, despite the numerous PowerPoint presentations about others. According to Masterson, there is a reason for this, as building constellations is actually quite difficult.


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