One Web in midst of new space race

A rocket provided by Arianespace SA lifted off and thrust six satellites made by OneWeb Systems Inc. into orbit. The launch took place at Kourou, on the coast of French Guiana on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. OneWeb, formerly known as WorldVu Satellites, is a global communications company....

A rocket provided by Arianespace SA lifted off and thrust six satellites made by OneWeb Systems Inc. into orbit. The launch took place at Kourou, on the coast of French Guiana on Wednesday, February 27, 2019.

Background

OneWeb, formerly known as WorldVu Satellites, is a global communications company founded by Greg Wyler. The company is based in Arlington, Virginia and plans to launch the OneWeb satellite constellation, a network of more than 900 low Earth orbit microsatellites, which started on February 27, 2019.

Its intended goal is to provide internet services to "hundreds of millions of potential users residing in places without broadband access". The company also hopes to provide high-speed internet everywhere on Earth by 2021. The company has raised more than $2 billion from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, SoftBank Group Corp., Qualcomm Inc., Airbus SE and others.

Analysis

OneWeb launched the first six satellites out of a planned constellation of 650 with which it plans to blanket the world in broadband. The Arianespace-operated Soyuz rocket took off at 1:37 Pacific time from Guiana Space Center.

“There is a lot of hope in this rocket,” Greg Wyler, said in an interview ahead of the launch. This is part of a boom in private space investment and activity, fueled by a race to create a computing and data-communications shell surrounding the Earth.

OneWeb has already faced numerous delays. The whole constellation was originally planned to be in place by the end of 2019, which is impossible at this point. But delays are common in ambitious space-based businesses, and OneWeb hasn’t been just procrastinating — it has been girding itself for mass production, raising funds to set up launch contracts and improving the satellites themselves. Its updated schedule, as it states in the mission summary: “OneWeb will begin customer demos in 2020 and provide global, 24-hour coverage to customers in 2021.”

OneWeb is the only company with globally organized spectrum rights allowing them to launch 1900 satellites globally. They’ve been working with countries around the world and have landing rights in hundreds of countries.

The delays faced by the company are due to the setting up of a supply chain that took around 3 years. These first six OneWeb satellites are test units, and the company will put them through their paces over the next six months to make sure they operate as expected. Once the launched satellites are tested and ready, the production of satellites can begin. The supply chain can handle the production of several satellites per day. Beginning in September, the company plans to launch 30-36 satellites every 21 days.

Arianespace can take up to 36 of the 330-pound satellites to orbit per flight and is contracted for 20 more OneWeb launches in coming years. The new satellites are smaller, cheaper and faster at delivering data than older satellite internet models from operators such as ViaSat Inc. and Inmarsat Plc.

OneWeb isn’t the only company vying to provide internet to places inaccessible by optical fibres. SpaceX’s side project, Starlink, has similar ambitions, with an even greater number of satellites planned, and Swarm is aiming for a smaller constellation of smaller satellites for low-cost access. Ubiquitilink just announced this week that its unique technology will remove the need for base stations and beam satellite connections directly to ordinary phones.

Telesat and LeoSat Enterprises, are building their own constellations of low-earth orbit satellites. These data constellations will join a low-earth orbit imaging constellation of more than 200 satellites built by Planet Labs Inc.

Another problem faced by companies providing optic free data is that they have to still face regulatory hurdles to beaming data between dozens of countries.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the manufacture of smaller, cheaper satellites makes the industry more investable. OneWeb still has to prove that their satellites work and that their antennas can deliver data at the speeds and prices they have promised. In addition, operators must keep costs for consumers low enough to ensure mass adoption in order to establish its commercially viability. 

Image Courtesy: José FurtadoCanopus-BCC BY-SA 4.0

Comments