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ISP BT and OneWeb UK Sign Satellite Broadband Distribution Deal

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021 (8:29 am) - Score 3,792
oneweb leo satellite

UK ISP BT and satellite operator OneWeb, which is partly owned by the UK government, have today officially signed a Distribution Partner Agreement that could result in faster low-latency backhaul and broadband solutions for businesses. Further down the line, it may also help to cover rural homes by fuelling Fixed Wireless Access.

At present OneWeb has launched a total of 358 small c.150kg Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ultrafast broadband satellites into space and their initial plan is to build a constellation of 648, which is enough for a reasonable level of global coverage by around June 2022 (a beta service is due to launch before the end of this year).

NOTE: OneWeb’s first commercial beta service will serve parts of the UK, Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic seas.

Back in February 2021 we reported that OneWeb were in early-stage talks with telecoms giant BT (here) about the possibility of the two working together in order to tackle some of the hardest to reach parts of the country. In June 2021 this was followed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreement between the pair (here), albeit with little detail about what that would actually produce.

Today’s agreement goes much further and confirms that BT will, due to current capacity levels within OneWeb’s satellites (the network is not yet finished), initially trial the use of their LEO constellation for providing low latency backhaul solutions to sites where additional capacity or a back-up solution is required, and to deliver improved resilience for business customers. The first LIVE TRIALs are expected in “early 2022“.

As OneWeb grows their capacity, the list of future use cases is then expected to widen, opening up the opportunity to explore the use of satellite for Internet of Things (IoT) backhaul and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband in rural areas. In other words, OneWeb’s LEOs could provide capacity to fuel a fixed wireless network for communities (i.e. via 5G or some other FWA technology).

In theory such work could act as a complement to the Government’s rural focused £5bn Project Gigabit programme, which has previously warned that the final 0.3% of premises “could be prohibitively expensive to reach” and may need alternative methods, like LEO satellites or wireless networks (i.e. the same sort of area as their 10Mbps USO was supposed to fix).

Nadine Dorries MP, UK Digital Secretary, said:

“The agreement between OneWeb and BT will help bring fast and reliable global connectivity, from the Highlands to the Himalayas. I’m delighted these two British companies have joined forces to research the technological benefits of working together, and I look forward to exploring how this could play a role in our mission to put hard-to-reach areas in the digital fast lane.”

Philip Jansen, Chief Executive of BT Group, said:

“Space is an emerging and enormous digital opportunity, and this is an important step towards harnessing its potential for BT’s customers across the globe. We will put OneWeb’s technology through its paces in our UK labs with the goal of delivering live trials in early 2022. Delivered securely and at scale, satellite solutions will be an important part of our plans to expand connectivity throughout the UK and globally, and to further diversify the range of services we can offer our customers.”

Neil Masterson, OneWeb’s Chief Executive Officer, said:

“BT has taken the lead in the recognition of LEO satellite’s advantage. We are delighted as this agreement with BT Group represents an important strategic partnership for OneWeb as we continue to make progress towards our operational launch. We are excited to be playing such a key role in improving the resilience of the overall telecom infrastructure in the UK. OneWeb’s connectivity platform will help bridge the last digital divides across the country and enhance the nation’s digital infrastructure.”

The new partnership is said to support BT’s (EE) wider network ambition, as set out in July this year, to deliver digital solutions across the entire UK by 2028, through a combination of an expanded network and “on demand,” requestable 5G or 4G mobile solutions anywhere beyond. “In building a converged, software-defined network, BT will leverage and integrate both terrestrial and non-terrestrial technologies to deliver on the goal of seamless, ubiquitous connectivity,” said the operator.

The first step will see BT test OneWeb’s capabilities at its Bristol lab to demonstrate how they integrate with existing services. After that, BT will begin “early adopter trials” for their UK and international customers (focused on business connections and backhaul capacity for sites where additional capacity or a back-up solution is required), expected early next year. Only after those will they move to trial a possible rural broadband solution, which we suspect will adopt a Satellite supplied 5G mast for the remotest areas.

At this stage we still don’t have much solid information about the final technical capabilities of OneWeb’s final network, although it has in the past shown the potential to deliver ultrafast data speeds (100Mbps+) and latency times of under 40ms (example).

We should add that pan-European satellite operator Eutelsat, which also has a big stake in OneWeb, may also seek to sell broadband products, possibly direct to consumers and businesses, in the near future. In addition, OneWeb has approval for a total of 2,000 satellites and 1,280 of those will be a second-generation model that could sit in a higher Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of 8,500km, but the latter would require more funding.

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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.
Leave a Comment
8 Responses
  1. Kelly says:

    I wonder if they will be priced to compete with Starlink or not.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Pricing is going to be a very tricky issue for OneWeb, given their position vs Starlink and other Satellite networks. I suspect we’ll see quite a bit of contention being used to perhaps make it more affordable, albeit with lower expected speeds. But that’s just my assumption.

    2. Meadmodj says:

      I assumed this was more about business and 5G back haul. Whether Oneweb or Starlink the capacity is finite as the satellites pass and hence valuable. Beware of introductory hype. In my view it would be ludicrous to comprise those locations that actually need it (land or ocean) by those in urban with alternatives. So price/regulation may need to take a role.

    3. Meadmodj says:

      In case I am corrected, we pass.

    4. Meadmodj says:

      Oneweb = Polar orbit
      Starlink – Heliosynchronous (sun) orbit

    5. Yatta! says:

      @Meadmodj:

      Not all Starlink satellites are in sun-synchronous orbits, they’ve already launched ones into polar orbit and plan to have two polar orbital shells, enabling truly global coverage.

  2. A British tax payer says:

    Mark, I’d say that OneWeb is partly owned by us, British tax payers, rather than the ‘UK government’.

    Do you know how much of it we currently own? I’ve tried to find out, however the figures are not up to date on the usual sources.

    As far as I can tell, the largest shareholders in descending order are:

    1. Bharti (with by far the largest holding)
    2. Eutelsat
    3/4. British tax payers / SoftBank (assuming the latter hasn’t upped its stake)
    5. Hanwha
    6. Hughes

    I’ve not been able to determine the percentages.

    1. Winston Smith says:

      I’d say it wasn’t partly owned by us as we can’t sell our share.

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