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OneWeb lofts last batch of satellites to enable global internet service

Mission accomplished? Meanwhile Musk's Starlink's V2 sats experience de-orbit-worthy 'issues'

Satellite comms operator OneWeb says its constellation is complete, with the latest launch bringing its total of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to 618, although it will add further launches for resiliency and redundancy.

OneWeb - partly owned by the UK government - said a successful mission over the weekend delivered the final 36 satellites of its constellation into their orbits. This was courtesy of NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

This is the third blast off for OneWeb hardware this year and its 18th in total, and sets the company up for delivery of an internet service with global coverage scheduled before the end of 2023. OneWeb currently offers connectivity in some regions north of 50 degrees latitude, including the UK and Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Kester Mann, telecoms analyst at CCS Insight, noted that it was an important milestone for OneWeb as competition between providers in the high-stakes satellite broadband market ramps up. He pointed out that just last week, "Amazon unveiled three new outdoor antenna models for its service, Project Kuiper."

Mann said Jeff Bezos's venture is nonetheless not expected to launch commercially until 2024, giving OneWeb "an important window of opportunity."

In particular, OneWeb has committed to provide connectivity across India as a result of its contract with NSIL, and claimed it will provide internet access to enterprises, towns, villages, municipalities and schools in even the most remote areas of the country.

OneWeb also now has enough satellites in orbit to sell broadband to businesses and government customers in the lower 48 US states from May, CEO Neil Masterson told Bloomberg.

Still far behind Starlink in number of sats deployed

Although OneWeb has a total of 618 satellites in situ, this is still far fewer than rival Starlink, which has over 3,000 systems in low Earth orbit.

However the two companies are not necessarily direct rivals, at least not yet, as OneWeb has so far aimed at government and business customers, while Starlink has largely targeted individuals and those living in regions poorly served by terrestrial networks.

The orbit of OneWeb satellites is higher than those of Starlink, which may explain why it needs fewer unit to get global coverage. This also means that OneWeb customers will typically experience a higher latency, although this is said to be only in the order of 100ms or so compared with 20 to 40ms for Starlink.

OneWeb recently used Starlink’s parent company SpaceX as another launch partner for some of its satellites, following the cancellation of a launch booked with the Russian space agency Roscosmos last year that left 36 of its satellites in Russian hands and set back its launch plans.

OneWeb told Reuters earlier this month that it has now largely given up on trying to retrieve its assets from Russia following the incident, which was a result of the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, OneWeb is in the midst of a merger with another satellite operator, Eutelsat, which is expected to close by the end of the first half of 2023. The transaction, said to be worth $3.4 billion, is expected to see Eutelsat take complete ownership of OneWeb from its existing shareholders, save for a “special share” that the UK government will retain following its £500 million ( about $600 million) bailout of OneWeb back in 2020.

The merger will see Eutelsat combine its existing fleet of 36 satellites in geosynchronous equatorial orbits (GEO) with OneWeb’s constellation of low Earth orbit satellites, allowing it to offer a mix of services that take advantage of the different capabilities of each.

Masterson hailed the completion of the satellite constellation as a significant milestone.

“Over several years we have remained focused on our commitment to deliver coverage solutions for the customers and communities that need it most. With today’s satellite deployment, facilitated by our expert team and our partners at ISRO and NSIL, we are realizing this central ambition,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was reported last week that Starlink may be having issues with some of its second-generation satellites, issues that may be serious enough for the company to have to de-orbit them.

Elon Musk, CEO of Starlink’s parent company SpaceX, confirmed in a tweet that there was a “lot of new technology in Starlink V2, so we’re experiencing some issues, as expected” and that: “Some sats will be deorbited, others will be tested thoroughly before raising altitude above Space Station.”

CCS Insight's Mann said of the OneWeb launch that "being early is important as it provides an opportunity to establish partnerships with network operators." He added this can speed up the "go-to-market, allowing satellite broadband providers to tap into many millions of existing customer relationships."

The analyst also opined that much of sat broadband's recent momentum has been supplier-led. "Unproven business models, high upfront costs and questionable demand raise serious doubts over the viability of high-profile projects. Some previous ventures have ended in spectacular failure and pose a stark warning to today's hopefuls." ®

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