One-Web Launches Broadband Satellites

Earlier this month OneWeb launched six test satellites intended for an eventual satellite fleet intended to provide broadband. The six satellites were launched from a Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

OneWeb was started by Greg Wyler of Virginia in 2012, originally under the name of WorldVu. Since then the company has picked up heavy-hitter investors like Virgin, Airbus, SoftBank and Qualcomm. The company’s plan is to launch an initial constellation of 650 satellites that will blanket the earth, with ultimate deployment of 1,980 satellites. The plans are to deploy thirty of the sixty-five pound satellites with each launch. That means twenty-two successful launches are needed to deploy the first round.

Due to the low-earth orbits of the satellites, at about 745 miles above earth, the OneWeb satellites will avoid the huge latency that is inherent from current satellite broadband providers like HughesNet, which uses satellites orbiting at 22,000 miles above the earth. The OneWeb specifications filed with the FCC talks about having latency in the same range as cable TV networks in the 25-30 millisecond range. But where a few high-orbit satellites can see the whole earth, the big fleet of low-orbit satellites is needed just to be able in see everywhere.

The company is already behind schedule. The company had originally promised coverage across Alaska by the end of 2019. They are now talking about having customers demos sometime in 2020 with live broadband service in 2021. The timeline matter for a satellite company because the bandwidth license from the FCC requires that they launch 50% of their satellites within six years and all of them within nine years. Right now, OneWeb and also Elon Musk’s SpaceX have both fallen seriously behind the needed deployment timeline.

The company’s original goal was to bring low-latency satellite broadband to everybody in Alaska. While they are still talking about bringing broadband to those who don’t have it today, their new business plan is to sell directly to airlines and cruise ship lines and to sell wholesale to ISPs who will then market to the end user.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of speeds will really be delivered. The company talks today about a maximum speed of 500 Mbps. But I compare that number to the claim that 5G cellphones can work at 600 Mbps, as demonstrated last year by Sprint – it’s possible only in a perfect lab setting. The best analog to a satellite network is a wireless transmitter on a tower in a point-to-multipoint network. That transmitter is capable of making a relatively small number of big-bandwidth connections or many more low-bandwidth connections. The economic sweet spot will likely be to offer many connections at 50 – 100 Mbps rather than fewer connections at a higher speed.

It’s an interesting business model. The upfront cost of manufacturing and launching the satellites is high. It’s likely that a few launches will go awry and destroy satellites. But other than replacing satellites that go bad over time, the maintenance costs are low. The real issue will be the bandwidth that can be delivered. Speeds of 50 – 100 Mbps will be welcomed in the rural US for those with no better option. But like with all low-bandwidth technologies – adequate broadband that feels okay today will feel a lot slower in a decade as household bandwidth demand continues to grow. The best long-term market for the satellite providers will be those places on the planet that are not likely to have a landline alternative – which is why they first targeted rural Alaska.

Assuming that the low-earth satellites deliver as promised, they will become part of the broadband landscape in a few years. It’s going to be interesting to see how they play in the rural US and around the world.