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Starry starry night? No, it's just more low Earth orbit satellites as BT and OneWeb ink deal

Brit telco to test out broadband tech in UK labs before customer trials next year

Government-owned satellite broadband slinger OneWeb says it is planning to loft 648 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in the next eight months, after signing terms with BT for a new Distribution Partner Agreement.

This builds on the initial Memorandum of Understanding the pair signed in July and will see BT test how LEO satellite tech fits with its terrestrial networks.

Trials with customers are expected to follow early in 2022, BT said. Philip Jansen, BT chief exec, described space as an "emerging and enormous digital opportunity," adding "this is an important step towards harnessing its potential for BT's customers across the globe."

"We will put OneWeb's technology through its paces in our UK labs with the goal of delivering live trials in early 2022. Delivered securely and at scale, satellite solutions will be an important part of our plans to expand connectivity throughout the UK and globally, and to further diversify the range of services we can offer our customers."

The UK government brought OneWeb out of bankruptcy last year along with Indian multinational Bharti Global, and the company received a cash injection from Eutelsat in April this year.

Once the LEO sats are in place, they will provide UK and global coverage – although at an altitude of between 800km and 2,000km and coming around every two hours, the BT vans may have a problem catching them on the maintenance schedule.

When the system is fully up and running – currently the plan is for this to be by 2028 – it should be possible for people in remote areas or locations where there has been a disaster to enjoy the communications that are taken for granted in urban dwellings.

The network will back up and complement the backhaul infrastructure in places where the installation of cable and microwave is too expensive, via a permanent or temporary ground site. Initially businesses will benefit from this system yet speeds are going to be slow in comparison to some other systems. However, with testing in Bristol on schedule, the rollout is so far on track, meaning some customers should be on it by early 2022.

Rumours were that the reason the UK bought up OneWeb and its systems was to redesign it into some form of GPS to replace the UK's lost share of Galileo, drawing widespread scorn from the space community as the system is not suited to GPS. Reassigning it to such a role would be more difficult and expensive than just putting up a few hundred more purpose-built satellites. The OneWeb sats are too low for current GPS systems and emit the wrong type of signal, though we shall never know whether BoJo knew this at the time of the deal, which he called a remedy to a situation where "the UK has been left behind in the space race."

In January this year, OneWeb filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for US market access for 48,000 broadband satellites, rapidly downsizing its request to a mere 6,372 sats just days later in line with the "vision of OneWeb's new owners, the UK government and Bharti Global."

BT is following in the footsteps of fellow unloved US telco AT&T, which inked a deal with OneWeb in September. Like BT, the US telco is partly bankrolled by a taxpayer-funded broadband rollout, with the Connect America Fund giving it $428m a year in support.

AT&T has previously complained it was too expensive to expand high-speed fibre networks for customers in remote areas, so rural dwellers on both sides of the pond will be hoping to clap eyes on the LEO constellation soon. ®

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