Satellite broadband provider OneWeb is thinking big. The company filed paperwork this week with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate 1.5 million user terminals in the United States. Combine with the SpaceX Starlink FCC filing of 1 million terminals, there’s the potential to place up to 2.5 million satellite broadband terminals into usage by 2021 and beyond – assuming there’s enough end-user equipment ready and available and customers willing to sign up.
Mark Harris (Twitter: @meharris) reported on Twitter that OneWeb/WorldVu Satellites Limited requested permission from the FCC to operate up to “1,500,000 fixed, compact, electronically steered antenna user terminals,” according to the filing.
OneWeb’s filing emphases the need for authorization as “crucial to bringing the benefits of this innovative connectivity to the U.S. consumer. Commission authorization of the ESA User Terminals is essential to OneWeb’s efforts to expedite the deployment of its satellite based connectivity service to the benefit of those U.S. consumers who currently have no or limited access to broadband due to the lack of terrestrial networks in rural and remote locations.”
It still isn’t clear if user terminals will be deployed down to individual user households, but the wording discussing potential radio frequency (RF) hazards is suggestive. “The OneWeb ESA User Terminal will be installed with authorized personnel only signage in restricted areas such as on rooftops and behind fencing.”
Regardless of who the end-customer is, “authorized personnel” – presumably OneWeb badged employees and/or licensed contractors working on behalf of the company – will install and service the gear when necessary. The filing doesn’t specify what company or companies will supply the electrically steered antennas and other gear, with OneWeb working with an ecosystem of established companies and startups working to build mass market flat panel antennas at consumer price-points.
SpaceX Starlink requested permission to operate up to 1 million user terminals, with SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk implying its equipment will be designed for shipping and easy installation by an end-user and not requiring a truck roll. The notational design described by Musk in a May press call includes a “pizza box” sized flat-panel antenna that would simply be pointed towards the open sky without the more sophisticated line-up needed by pointing a round dish at a specific point in space to communicate with a Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite. Musk has said the cost of end-user gear would be around $250 or so, but it isn’t clear if this will be the initial price or an aspirational price based upon production over time. It is assumed SpaceX is or will be producing its own flat panel antenna and end-user gear in-house.
How dropping 2.5 million user terminals into the U.S. market will affect other broadband providers, including existing rural alternatives such as GEO satellite and cable, is unknown. At the end of June of this year, Viasat reported it had 587,000 U.S. fixed broadband subscribers and did not detail how many commercial or government end-user terminals it had installed. Hughes, a division of EchoStar, had around 1.36 million broadband subscribers at the end of 2018, but the company did not break them out by customer type (residential/consumer vs. commercial/enterprise).