London-based satellite operator OneWeb has launched an additional 40 spacecraft, bringing its in-orbit broadband constellation to over 580, and is now in the final stages of achieving global internet coverage. With one more launch scheduled in the coming weeks, the company will have enough satellites in space to provide internet access anywhere on Earth.
OneWeb rapidly recovered after facing financial collapse due to the pandemic in March 2020 and was bought out of bankruptcy by the UK government and Indian conglomerate Bharti.
Since then, the company has scaled up remarkably and is currently serving customers in 15 countries. OneWeb’s CEO Neil Masterson said the company had issued its first invoice in May 2020 and has $800m in backlog bookings as of the end of December.
It typically takes time for newly launched satellites to reach their proper position, 1,200km above Earth, undergo testing, and become operational. The batches of satellites launched last year will expand coverage to the lower 48 US states and the northern Mediterranean by the end of May, and to 25 degrees North (including Mexico, Northern Africa, and India) by the end of summer.
The final launches are expected to provide broadband connectivity to users at the equator by the end of the year. This coverage pattern for the Northern Hemisphere will be repeated for major land areas in the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, once necessary ground stations are installed to complete the data links.
OneWeb plans to have approximately 40 nodes operational by the end of 2023. The company is based in a refurbished BBC building located on the site of the old stadium used during the 1908 summer Olympics.
The majority of people who pass by the silver-coloured building are likely to be unaware of the remarkable operation taking place within it. OneWeb’s satellite fleet is currently the second largest in the world, with only Elon Musk’s Starlink flying more active spacecraft in orbit.
The fleet is divided into 12 separate planes in the sky and requires 24/7 management, which is a significant software undertaking. Francesco Sacconi, the director of satellite operations, stated that it is impossible to check every satellite on every pass, and they heavily rely on automation.
The satellites typically operate without issues, but if any problems arise, the system will alert the team.
The broadband connections that stream through OneWeb’s satellites are constantly monitored using synthetic data packets.
This approach enables the team to detect issues such as packet loss, latency, jitter, and packets arriving out of sequence that could impact the service’s performance. Matt Hall, who oversees OneWeb’s network operations, explained this process.
Unlike Starlink, OneWeb does not directly sell broadband connections to individual users. Instead, the company’s primary clients are telecoms companies that provide internet services, which could be used to supplement or expand mobile phone networks’ infrastructure.
A typical service plan for a user’s terminal or antenna system would involve a download speed of 75 megabits per second (MBPS) and an upload speed of 15 MBPS. Low latency is a crucial aspect that both OneWeb and Starlink emphasize, which means the time it takes for data to travel round-trip over the network is reduced.
For traditional communication satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), which are located at 36,000km above the Earth, the latency, or “ping” time, can be up to 700 milliseconds.
In contrast, the new low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites have a latency of as little as 80 milliseconds, making real-time communication, such as Microsoft Teams calls, possible. Senior sales engineer David Fuller said that LEO allows for real-time collaboration on Office documents, which is impossible with GEO satellites.
OneWeb plans to request proposals later this year to build the next generation of satellites, which will be larger and more powerful, but they will not be procured in large numbers. Previously, there was talk of launching thousands of satellites, but the current plan is to have less than 1,000 in orbit.