Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet constellation is already providing fast, reliable and affordable internet to many remote corners of the lands and oceans of the world and will basically be available worldwide as early as the end of 2023.
But few know of their lesser-known competition, amongst which is OneWeb: a joint-venture project which includes none other than the UK government among its stakeholders after they invested $500 million during the COVID pandemic.
In this article, we cover OneWeb, its rocky history, where it is right now and which direction it is taking in the future, including its relationship with his majesty’s government.
The history of OneWeb
Originally called WorldVu, OneWeb was one of the first companies to start exploring satellite internet constellations made of small, assembly-line satellites orbiting at low altitudes.
It was founded by Greg Wyle, who, together with Elon Musk, was pushing the idea past the idea stage back in the early 2010s. Elon Musk was actually a core contributor until deciding to do his own venture with SpaceX.
In 2015, the dream started becoming reality as OneWeb secured its first $500 million in funding. A day later, Starlink was announced by SpaceX, marking the beginning of the fierce competition between both.
OneWeb kept raising capital from many global investors and started producing its satellites together with Airbus Defense Systems in Florida, US. At the same time, Starlink satellites were being built by SpaceX in its giant factory in Redmond, Washington.
In February 2019, OneWeb launched its first six satellites, while Starlink launched its first sixty satellites three months later. The companies began launching neck-to-neck.
Roadblock 1: Bankruptcy
OneWeb had a planned launch cadence of around 30 satellites per month until its plans got de-railed by the Covid pandemic, and they were forced to file for bankruptcy in 2020 after failing to raise capital for the remaining 90% of its satellites.
On the other hand, with the gargantuan financial support of Elon Musk’s growing empire, Starlink kept on producing satellites and launching them from their own launchpad.
The UK government and the Indian Bharti group invested $500 million each to re-float the company and took a 20% share each, with the UK making a strategic investment (and gamble, according to some experts) after losing privileged access to the European Galileo GPS network.
It looked like OneWeb was once again back on track. Throughout 2021, capital kept flowing, more strategic partnerships were set up, and a new CEO was launching satellites as fast as possible.
Roadblock 2: Russian Invasion
OneWeb had been steadily launching its satellites from Russia until the country suddenly launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The resulting international outcry meant that OneWeb (with HQ in the UK) would not be able to keep launching from there, even after having pre-paid for their launches.
This forced OneWeb to start launching from SpaceX’s launchpad instead, incurring further costs and delays, not to mention they are doing so from their competitor’s own launchpad.
Merger with Eutelsat
And to add to the OneWeb drama, a couple of months (July 2022), OneWeb began merging with Eutelsat: a French satellite operator currently managing a network of high-altitude Telecomms geostationary satellites at over 20,000km from the Earth.
They are the third largest satellite operator in the world and combine OneWeb’s low-orbit and Eutelsat high-altitude satellite infrastructure to create a unique hybrid satellite internet network to compete with Starlink’s planned fleet of >40,000 small satellites.
It should be noted that the French and Chinese governments have a stake in Eutelsat, which means that they now also have a share in OneWeb, together with the British government.
The OneWeb satellite internet constellation (vs Starlink)
The current OneWeb network (10th Nov 2022) of Low-Earth Orbit satellites is currently composed of 462 satellites out of the planned 648, which means that 72% of the network has already been launched.
The constellation operates on a single orbital plane at 1200km from the Earth’s surface, which is about double the distance of Starlink’s 550km.
This plane was chosen as it’s less obstructed by existing space infrastructure while remaining close enough to deliver high-quality internet. On top of this, a higher plane means that a lower satellite density is required as they can sweep over a larger area.
Another specific characteristic of OneWeb’s constellation is that it can provide good coverage to polar regions due to its pole-to-pole orbital pattern.
In contrast, Starlink’s satellites orbit diagonally between the 60-degree Northern and Southern latitudes and have less coverage in the polar regions, as its evident from the satellite maps below.
Who does OneWeb provide internet to?
Each internet satellite constellation has its strengths and weaknesses. Since Starlink has the highest density of satellites at the lowest orbit, OneWeb does not want to compete in giving internet Starlink in the market of personal internet (except perhaps in polar regions where they have more coverage).
OneWeb is currently gearing towards providing internet to businesses, marine fleets, airlines, luxury yachting, freight trains, etc.
Also, OneWeb is currently opting to work together with telecom service providers as an intermediary between their satellite infrastructure and consumers, while Starlink is simultaneously operating as the service provider and so far have received positive reviews.
UK government involvement
The UK government invested $500 million in OneWeb in the midst of the Covid pandemic that had hit the UK particularly hard and that saw prime minister Boris Johnson partying while the entire population was on lockdown and him almost dying from Covid.
So why did the government spend so much money on internet satellites instead, and how did they justify it? Our research suggests there were two main reasons for the UK to do this:
Firstly, the UK was in urgent need of its own encrypted GPS satellite network. The UK lost its privileged access to the EU Galileo GPS Satellite network upon Brexit, which provided encrypted positioning data for commercial and defence purposes.
The government thought that OneWeb satellites could potentially carry the required GPS payload, but it was a technical gamble as these satellites were not designed for it. Innovation would be needed to make it work, which brings us to the second point.
Dominic Cummings was the chief advisor to Boris Johnson during that time, and he wanted to bet on high-risk, high-tech initiatives to boost the UK economy through the newly formed “Blue skies” Science research agency which looked to mimic the US’s own Advanced Project Research Agency.
OneWeb declaring bankruptcy was the opportunity to get the UK in a good position to have a stake in an unravelling trillion-dollar market, despite warnings from experts that it was putting taxpayers’ money at risk.
Currently, things look uncertain as the UK seems to be making other plans for its GPS solution, but at least it is managing to negotiate concessions on the location of the HQ and veto any sales of service that may threaten UK national security as a condition for OneWeb’s latest merger with Eutelsat.
The gamble is still on for the UK, but it is certainly a high-risk, high-reward endeavour.
Where is OneWeb heading?
So with all the past and ongoing changes to this multi-venture project, where is OneWeb heading now that its satellite constellation is significantly smaller than Starlink’s?
It looks like the gamble is as technical as it is commercial, with the merger with Eutelsat bringing the possibility of connecting high-altitude satellites of varying ages with the lower-orbit telecom fleets.
The satellites all communicate with ground stations under different frequencies, standards, and protocols, and getting them to communicate seamlessly certainly poses a challenge.
However, perhaps having a range of global stakeholders that include the UK, French, and Chinese governments may give it an edge over Starlink in terms of facilitating the commercial part of the business.
The OneWeb approach of targetting satellite internet for businesses and institutions over regular consumers is perhaps the only niche it can compete with Starlink’s larger and more developed infrastructure, although there doesn’t seem to be a reason both couldn’t co-exist.
Front Image: Spacenews