While OneWeb’s biggest news at Satellite 2019 was an announcement on user terminal equipment for enterprise and cellular backhaul customers, the company’s real weight was seen by the number of people moving in and out of its meeting room away from the show floor. If OneWeb’s public persona is an emphasis on lofty issues such as connecting 4 billion people around the world and “Responsible Space,” it needs to make money and that means business customers to pay the bills and keep the lights on.
I didn’t conduct a formal interview with anyone at OneWeb, but basically showed up and got scheduled in on the fly. I don’t want to quote anyone since there wasn’t any new news or scheduled topics to discuss.
OneWeb is focusing its initial sales and marketing efforts on the categories of mobility, government, cellular site backhaul and broadband. Forget about OneWeb offering end-user connectivity for anyone outside of the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” world anytime in the near future because low-cost terminal equipment in the $500 or less range isn’t available today, tomorrow, and probably won’t be until 2021 or later because nobody’s building electronically steerable flat panel antennas in consumer quantities – and that’s before getting into what entity would be the installer/reseller for a mass market service, either directly by OneWeb or with a partner.
Mobility is a category OneWeb defines to include maritime shipping, offshore platforms and drill ships – oil and gas by any other name – aviation, emergency responders, and connected vehicles. Yacht owners and cruise lines will clearly pay for high-speed, low-latency connectivity, but OneWeb has to compete against O3B as an established/incumbent service provider.
Similarly, OneWeb has its sights set on aviation and offers advantages of low-latency, “5G ready Internet” but will have to work to displace Gogo and Viasat, among others, to become an embedded part of the business or general flight experience. Low-cost antennas and terminal equipment might be handy to provide an incentive for switching/upgrading existing in-flight broadband services, with the additional bonus of truly global coverage not tethered to a specific satellite beam footprint.
The government sector can be lucrative, with defense and first responders willing to pay for reliable, quality service. However, like the aviation, maritime, and energy sectors, OneWeb will find itself head-to-head with Telesat, SpaceX, and LeoSat in most cases.
Expanding cellular backhaul is an interesting proposition, with OneWeb’s 25 millisecond or so latency making it a much better option than existing geosynchronous services. OneWeb boasts a “5G ready” network, but the meaning and definitions of 5G in the traditional telecom include goals for single digit latency. Throw in 25 milliseconds on top of that and are you not-5G? If you ignore latency, then OneWeb could help a number of wireless carriers expand service to unserved/underserved areas in short order.
OneWeb’s website positioning statement on broadband lists the categories “From Home Businesses to Large Enterprises,” “Enterprise Networking,” and “Consumer Residential Broadband.” As noted above, 2021 or later is the most likely target for any sort of consumer play and there are a lot of moving parts and procedures to be worked out. Large enterprises are more desirable customers because they are willing to write larger checks every month and are easier to set up, with in-house IT staff to troubleshoot problems.
If you have to pick one advantage OneWeb has over everyone else in the great LEO broadband sweepstakes, it is first mover. It should have a production service available before Telesat or LeoSat, and potentially before SpaceX, but one can’t be sure due to SpaceX’s lack of transparency.
Perhaps OneWeb’s greatest disadvantages are being a first mover and too much of an emphasis on good works. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing good as a corporation, but there’s a large gap between being a charity and an organization that needs to make money to pay the bills and expand capacity. OneWeb’s first mover position means later wave entrants Telesat, LeoSat, and Amazon can learn from OneWeb’s mistakes and target services and pricing in a more finetuned and aggressive fashion.