- By Jonathan Amos
- BBC Science Correspondent
London-based satellite operator OneWeb is in the home straight after deploying another 40 spacecraft this week.
That takes the company’s broadband constellation in orbit to over 580.
With another launch in the coming weeks, OneWeb will have enough satellites overhead to deliver an Internet connection anywhere on Earth.
The company has moved quickly to recover from financial collapse at the start of Covid in March 2020.
When the British government and the Indian conglomerate Bharti bought it out of bankruptcy a few months later, it had flown fewer than 80 spacecraft.
The scale-up since then had been nothing short of remarkable, CEO Neil Masterson said, with customers 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 at the end of December, we had $800 million in backlog bookings. So we’re going and we’re excited to be expanding around the rest of the world , and really shows what this network system can do,” he told BBC News.
It takes a while for newly launched satellites to properly get into position 1,200 km above Earth, to be tested and come online.
Batches added last year will expand coverage to the lower 48 US states and the northern Mediterranean by the end of May, and to 25 degrees north (think Mexico, northern Africa and India) by the end of summer.
The final launches will bring broadband connectivity to users at the equator by the end of the year. And this pattern for the Northern Hemisphere is repeated for the large land areas of the Southern Hemisphere, even including Antarctica, once the necessary ground stations have been installed to complete the data links.
OneWeb plans to have around 40 nodes up and running by the end of 2023.
The company operates out of a renovated BBC building on the old stadium site of the 1908 Summer Olympics.
Most passers-by will almost certainly be unaware of the extraordinary operation taking place inside the silvery premises.
Only one other organization in the world – Elon Musk’s broadband Internet competitor, Starlink – flies more active spacecraft in orbit today.
The satellite fleet, which is divided into 12 separate planes in the sky, must be managed 24/7. It is a huge software task.
“You simply cannot control every single 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 is a problem we will be alerted by the system.”
Similarly, the broadband connections flowing through the satellites are also constantly monitored.
“We can inject synthetic packets (of data) into the network. We can see things like packet loss, latency, jitter, packets arriving out of sequence — anything that can degrade service performance,” said Matt Hall, who heads OneWeb’s network operations.
Unlike Elon Musk’s Starlink service, OneWeb does not sell broadband connections directly to the individual user. Its customers are mainly the telecom companies that provide this internet service. They can also use the connection to complement or extend the infrastructure of their mobile phone networks.
A typical service plan for the user’s terminal, or antenna system, might be something like 75 megabits per second (MBPS) download and 15MBPS upload. But a key aspect that both OneWeb and Starlink highlight is low latency, or the reduced time it takes for data to make a round trip across the network.
For traditional geostationary (GEO) communications satellites sitting 36,000 km above Earth, this “ping” time can be 700 milliseconds. For the new low-orbit (LEO) satellites, it can be a tenth of this, say 80 milliseconds.
“This allows you to do things like real-time (Microsoft) Teams calls. No lag, no lag, videos work smoothly, voices work smoothly,” said senior sales engineer David Fuller.
“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 solicit their proposals to build the next generation of satellites. They will be larger (perhaps half a ton each compared to today’s 150 kg) and more powerful. But it is unlikely that a large number will be acquired.
Previously, there had been suggestions that OneWeb would try to launch thousands of satellites. The current thinking now is that the operational constellation in the sky may top out at under 1,000.
The other major goal for 2023 is to complete a merger with Eutelsat, the Paris-based satellite operator best known for distributing thousands of TV channels worldwide.
The French tie-up has led to speculation that the newly formed entity could seek a role in the EU’s planned multibillion-euro connectivity constellation known as Iris-Squared. As a strongly British outfit, and with Brexit in mind, this may have sounded unlikely for OneWeb. But as an Anglo-French affair it may be a different consideration.
CEO Neil Masterson won’t be drawn into any conversations but says the topic is open, not least because of the experience OneWeb now brings to the table.
“It’s not easy to build these constellations,” he told BBC News.
“There are only two LEO constellations (OneWeb and Starlink). There’s a lot of PowerPoint out there about others, but there are only two in operation. And there’s a reason for that: it’s actually pretty hard to do.”
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