Launch of first OneWeb satellites (Source: OneWeb)

OneWeb launches first six broadband satellites

Satellite broadband provider OneWeb successfully launched its first six satellites yesterday, February 27.  Communications have been successfully established with all six spacecraft, marking the start of commissioning and verification of operations toward mass deployment of satellites starting later this year with an initial goal of 648 satellites delivering global broadband service.

“This successful launch is a historic milestone for OneWeb, and marks the start of a new phase for our company as we begin scaling our satellite constellation in preparation to start full commercial services,“ Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb, said. “OneWeb was founded to make access possible for everyone, everywhere, and this launch is the first step towards making our goal a reality and bringing much-needed Internet access to people no matter where they are.”

Liftoff took place at 4:37 pm ET from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, with the satellites carried aloft onboard a Soyuz launch vehicle.  The satellites were dropped into orbit in two separate batches, two on the first and the remaining four following and now go through a 60 to 90 day testing period as they move into their final orbits.

Launches starting in the second half of this year are expected to put up to 36 satellite at a time into orbit with around 150 satellites in orbit by the end of the year, according to Space News. Regional service will be available in 2020 with around 300 satellites in orbit and global coverage available in 2021 with 600 satellites.  Another 48 satellites will be available as on-orbit spares in the first wave of deployment. The company will face a decision to deploy up to 900 total satellites as permitted by current licensing or move into a second generation deployment of 1,980 delivering more capacity.

OneWeb’s satellites use a combination of Ka-band for communications with ground stations and Ku-band between satellites and for communication with end-user terminals delivering Internet connectivity.  The constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite is expected to delivery low latency and high-speed services between 50 Mbps to 500 Mbps per user around the globe.

Around $2 billion has been invested in OneWeb so far, with participants including Airbus, Bharti, Coca-Cola, Group Salinas, Hughes, Intelsat, Maxar Technologies, Qualcomm, SoftBank, and Virgin Group. A purpose-built factory in Florida will crank out an initial 10 satellites per week on a production line designed to build up to 3 satellites per day.

OneWeb has launch contracts with Arianespace and Virgin Orbit, with a commitment of 20 Soyuz plus a flight onboard the new Ariane 6 vehicle.  Virgin Orbit will use its aircraft-lifted LauncherOne to place one to two OneWeb satellites in orbit at a time as replacements for individual spacecraft, with OneWeb committing to 39 LauncherOne flights.

Completion of OneWeb’s first phase is expected to come in at a total of $4 billion to $6 billion dollars.  Speculation now turns to how OneWeb will fund the remaining $2 billion to $4 billion necessary, with the worst case scenario resulting in SoftBank writing a large check to complete the project.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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