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OneWeb UK Successfully Launches 36 LEO Broadband Satellites

Friday, December 18th, 2020 (12:53 pm) - Score 2,568
oneweb_36_leo_satellites_stacked

As promised space company OneWeb, which is owned by a consortium of the UK Government and Indian conglomerate Bharti Global (here), has today successfully launched their next batch of 36 high-speed broadband capable Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites – built with support from Airbus – into orbit.

Until today the operator, which recently emerged from U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has since secured all of the relevant regulatory approvals to restart their operation, had only 74 compact LEOs in orbit and that has now jumped to 110 (15 similar launches will follow). The immediate plan is to build a modest constellation of 648 satellites (although they have future approval for a total of 2,000) – enough for a reasonable level of global coverage by around the end of 2022.

NOTE: Each LEO weighs 150kg+ and is only waist high (with solar panels folded-in) – tiny when compared with double decker bus sized GSO satellites. The platforms use Ka band (20-30GHz), Ku band (11-14GHz) and also have permission to use V-Band spectrum (37.5 – 43.5GHz, 47.2 – 50.2 GHz, and 50.4 – 51.4GHz).

The low altitude (c.1,200km) of such spacecraft should deliver significantly faster latency times (c.25-40ms) than regular GEO / GSO satellites that sit at 35,000km+, as well as better broadband speeds, but their constellation size isn’t as grand as those of rival SpaceX and that may limit their use as an effective rural broadband fix (the initial focus is on “enterprise-grade connectivity services for communities, businesses and governments“).

We should point out that 1,280 of the currently approved future plan for 2,000 LEOs will actually sit in a higher Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of 8,500km, which could have a negative impact upon those latency times, albeit with better coverage. Some global positioning technologies may also be added to future satellites (details of this remain unclear), beyond the initial 648.

The latest launch, which took place via Arianespace from the Vostochny Cosmodrome at just after midday (UK time) today, is the first since March 2020 (pre-bankruptcy) and will no doubt come as a big relief to all involved.

oneweb_rocket_launch

The first limited commercial services “above 50 degrees north latitude” (inc. UK, Alaska, Canada, Norway etc.) are currently due to start by the end of 2021. The challenge now will be in gradually turning this new constellation into a platform that can actually make some money, while delivering on the promised performance, in order to help prove its long-term viability.

Meanwhile we note that OneWeb has this week signed a new 3-year contract (worth $250m or c.£184m) with Hughes to develop and manufacture essential ground system technology for the new LEO constellation, such as the gateway electronics for the system and the core module that will be used in every user terminal.

Each gateway is said to be capable of “10,000 hand-offs per second, orchestrating handover and tracking of hundreds of gigabits of data across hundreds of beams and millions of users“. Under an agreement with OneWeb prior to a restructuring in March, 7 gateways had been installed with several more in various stages of production. Under the new agreement, Hughes has ramped up production on the gateway equipment and resumed testing on the installed systems.

We should add that LEOs like this are designed with a short lifespan and after that they will de-orbit (either automatically or, if that fails, then gravity will pull them down within 1-5 years). The reason for this is to help tackle fears about too much “space junk” around the Earth (potentially blocking access to space if a chain reaction of collisions were to occur).

However, many astronomers also complain that LEOs make conducting observation science more difficult, which is something that OneWeb itself has yet to clearly address. SpaceX has been more responsive on this matter, but their constellation will also be much larger.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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13 Responses
  1. Name says:

    Considering their lifespan, they will never stop launching them only to provide a service that nobody will need, especially in civilised parts of the world, other parts already have satellite internet access. This looks to me like a legal money laundering.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Traditional Satellite internet isn’t very good due to high latency times and often congestion, which are both things that OneWeb hopes to improve with LEOs. Still, it is a bit of a new approach, so we’ll see. But there’s definitely demand for the service itself in remote rural areas etc.

    2. OneWeb is a costly bad joke. says:

      @Mark Jackson: This service’s competitors will include Amazon / Blue Origin and SpaceX, both of whom will manufacture own satellites, orbited on their own reusable launch vehicles, back-up by huge personal wealth.

      OneWeb is a vanity project funded by the British tax payer, which will never make a profit, and be a continual drain on the public purse until it’s wound-up or flogged for a pittance.

    3. Rob says:

      if nobody needs such systems, why are the military paying handsomly for access to it?
      not everyone has fast broadband at home, my parents have satellite. It costs them an arm and a leg and it’s really really slow.

    4. OneWeb is a costly bad joke. says:

      @Rob: There is demand for this type of service, the problem is who’s paying for it, and that it’s already redundant, which is why OneWeb already went bankrupt.

      The British tax payer will pay for the military to access it, the military has no money of its own.

      Your parents and others in not-spots could use Bezos’ or Musk’s service long before OneWeb is completed (which I doubt it will be), there’s no need for OneWeb.

      If OneWeb ware a private enterprise I wouldn’t give a jot about it, let the private investors throw their money away, it’s their choice. However it’s being paid for by the British tax payer, the whole thing is highly irregular and profoundly fiscally imprudent.

      Imagine if two private companies were building and self-funding new high speed rail links, both running parallel, then the Government decided to also build a third railway parallel to the other two, which would take longer to complete and cost more to run, just for national pride, empty promises of extra features (which will never materialise) that are already available elsewhere, and silly notions of “sovereignty’s” sake.

      Look who we are paying to put the white elephants into orbit for us… the bally Russians! Our (so-called) leaders moan about the Chinese in our telecoms and they had the hardware over to Putin, for his spies to interfere with it! So much for national security… it’s absolute madness!

    5. Stuart says:

      I can think of lots of uses for government, and one which is little mentioned. Redundancy. We are at that stage where loosing your internet connection, is the same as loosing your electricity. Everything comes to a standstill. OneWeb not only fulfils that need, but military use, and filling in areas uneconomic to connect.

      This may end up being a cheap investment, because you already have a huge customer.

    6. Name says:

      @Stuart, what redundancy we are talking about exactly? The proper redundancy is called BGP which neither SpaceX nor OneWeb will ever support for their end customers as this is completely different grade. Also I can’t imagine elderly couple having Mikrotik configured for xDSL + Satellite or even better Satellite + Satellite and paying for this. If your job depends on the internet reliability then I would suggest start looking for a house in different place.

    7. Stuart says:

      @Name I’m not suggesting redundancy down to packet level. I’m taking about fibre being cut to a building that might take hours or days to fix.

      If you have a building full of employees that need the internet, then a fast, low-latency satellite connection is an excellent alternative.

    8. Tim M says:

      @Name The existing Sat internet is not fit for purpose the satellites are in Geostationary orbit which is around 26,000 miles away and 3 satellites can cover the planet except for very high latitudes and the poles so they are very congested and the latency and bandwidth available is awful.

      @OneWeb is a costly bad joke, Kuiper is the one that’s behind they need several thousand satellites for a decent coverage in the orbit they are expected to be in and they currently have 0 up, going up at a whopping 0 a month with no ability to put any up soon although Bezos’s rocket company, Blue Origin was likely expected to be the primary launch provider they currently don’t have the ability to put a satellite into orbit and they won’t until towards the end of 2021 at the very earliest (and if anything like their sub orbial rocket it will go missing for a year after several successful flights) and Kuiper have said they plan to find other launch providers to meet the targets given to them by the US government such launch contracts are usually public knowledge and nothing has been announced yet meanwhile OneWeb will have enough coverage to start providing a service to certain areas as they only need just over 800 satellites to start with due to being in a polar orbit and they are slightly higher, they already have over 100 up and have one launch of 36 sats a month on next years launch manifest.

  2. Not a B..xcultist says:

    More throwing good money after bad, from an administration whose entire existence is based built upon foundations of exceptionalism, hubris and ignorance.

    1. rob says:

      found the elon musk fanatic

    2. Not a B..xcultist says:

      @Rob: Found the non-sequitur fanatic ::facepalm::

  3. Unicorns don't exist says:

    Bojo the Clown’s Magic Money Forest apparently extends to the Earth’s orbit… if not beyond.

    So much for the party of fiscal conservatism! Good job the country’s in fantastic financial shape… oh… scratch that!

    He’s the worst Prime Minister and Tory party leader in living memory. A bloated wrecking ball to the British people, economy and territorial integrity.

    Good luck to those who’ll have to clean-up his mess once he’s been given the boot.

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