The OneWeb company is close to the global spread of the Internet
- By Jonathan Amos
- BBC Science Correspondent
London-based satellite operator OneWeb is home shortly after deploying another 40 spacecraft this week.
The company’s orbital broadband constellation reaches more than 580.
With another launch in the coming weeks, OneWeb will have enough satellites to provide Internet connectivity anywhere on Earth.
The company has moved quickly to recover from its financial collapse at the start of Covid in March 2020.
When the UK government and the Indian conglomerate Bharti bought it a few months after bankruptcy, it had flown fewer than 80 spacecraft.
The scale-up since then has been nothing short of remarkable, says managing director Neil Masterson, whose clients are now served in 15 countries north of 50 degrees latitude, which includes the UK.
“We issued our first invoice last May, which is obviously a very important moment for us. And as of the end of December, we have $800 million in backlog. So we keep going and we’re happy. expanding around the world, really showing what this network system can do,” he told BBC News.
It takes some time for newly launched satellites to properly settle 1,200 km above Earth, be tested and come online.
Last year’s increased shipments will spread to the lower 48 US states and the northern Mediterranean by late May, and up to 25 degrees north (think Mexico, North Africa, and India) by late summer.
The final launches will bring broadband to users across the equator by the end of the year. And for the Northern Hemisphere, this pattern is repeated for major land areas in the Southern Hemisphere, even including Antarctica, once the necessary land stations are installed to complete the data links.
OneWeb plans to have about 40 nodes up and running by the end of 2023.
The company operates from the renovated BBC building in the old stadium of the 1908 Summer Olympics.
Most people passing by would certainly not be aware of the unusual activity taking place inside the silver area.
Only one other company in the world, Elon Musk’s broadband competitor Starlink, has a more active spacecraft in orbit today.
The satellite fleet, which is spread over 12 separate aircraft in the sky, must be managed 24/7. It’s a huge software manual.
“You just can’t check every satellite on every pass. So we rely heavily on automation,” explained Francesco Sacconi, director of satellite operations. “The satellites are generally well-behaved, but if there’s a problem, we’ll get a notification from the system.”
Similarly, broadband connections via satellites are also constantly monitored.
“We can inject synthetic packets (data) into the network. We can see things like packet loss, latency, jitters, packets arriving out of sequence; anything that could degrade the performance of the service,” says Matt Hall, who runs OneWeb. network operations.
Unlike Elon Musk’s Starlink service, OneWeb does not sell broadband directly to the individual user. Its clients are mainly telecommunications companies that provide this internet service. They can also use the connection to supplement or extend the infrastructure in their mobile phone networks.
A typical service plan for a user terminal or antenna system might be approximately 75 megabits per second (MBPS) download and 15 MBPS upload. But a key aspect that both OneWeb and Starlink emphasize is low latency, or the reduced time it takes for data to travel through the network.
For traditional geostationary (GEO) communications satellites 36,000 km above Earth, this “ping” time can be 700 milliseconds. For new low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, it can be a tenth of that, say 80 milliseconds.
“This allows you to do things like real-time (Microsoft) Teams calls. No lag, no lag, smooth video streaming, smooth audio,” said David Fuller, Senior Sales Engineer.
“You can use Office applications where you have a team working on a document at the same time. You can’t do that with GEO, you can in LEO with OneWeb.”
The company will go out to industry later this year to ask for their proposals to build the next generation of satellites. They will be larger (perhaps half a ton each compared to today’s 150kg) and more powerful. But they are hardly bought in large numbers.
There have been suggestions in the past that OneWeb might try to launch thousands of satellites. Current thinking is that there may be fewer than 1,000 constellations in the sky.
Another major goal for 2023 is a merger with Eutelsat, the Paris-based satellite operator best known for distributing thousands of TV channels worldwide.
The French connection has led to speculation that the start-up could seek a role in the EU’s planned multibillion-euro communications constellation, called Iris-Squared. As a strictly British outfit, and with Brexit in mind, this might have seemed unlikely for OneWeb. But as an Anglo-French concern, it may become another consideration.
CEO Neil Masterson wouldn’t be interested in any talk, but says the topic is open, especially because of the experience OneWeb now brings to the table.
“Building those constellations is not easy,” he told BBC News.
“There are only two LEO constellations (OneWeb and Starlink). There are many PowerPoints out there about the others, but only two work. And there is a reason for that. it’s actually pretty hard to do.