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OneWeb Rises From the Ashes – Maybe

OneWeb launching satellites aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Lift-off occurred on March 21stat 17:06 UTC. (Photo: OneWeb)

A consortium of the UK Government and Bharti Enterprises bought bankrupt OneWeb, a company that had raised $3.2 billion and had acquired valuable spectrum rights, for $1 billion. That is a good start, but a BBC article says experts believe that at least $3 billion is needed to complete the OneWeb constellation.

Will they make it?

The UK government will be a source of further funding. OneWeb's primary goal is closing the digital divide by bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas around the world, including, of course, the UK. That is obvious, but the UK government has other hopes for OneWeb. One frequently mentioned application is global positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT).

With Brexit, the UK lost access to the secure, encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the European global navigation system, Galileo and the possibility of equipping OneWeb satellites for secure, encrypted PNT has been suggested as an immediate application. Tyler Reid and his colleagues showed that OneWeb satellites could provide excellent PNT performance if they reset relatively cheap atomic clocks once per orbit using the precise clocks of a civilian global navigation system and, while PRS is reserved for European Union governments and defense users, the UK retains access to Galilieo's public civilian service. (Reid is co-founder of Xona Space Systems which plans to offer precision PNT service using a constellation of small satellites).

The UK expects OneWeb to be profitable. Science, research and innovation minister Amanda Solloway said "This investment is likely to make an economic return, with due diligence showing a strong commercial basis for investment" and she added that "The deal contributes to the government's plan to join the first rank of space nations, and signals the government's ambition for the UK to be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing, and exploitation of novel satellite technologies enabling enhanced broadband through the ownership of a fleet of low-Earth orbit satellites." Perhaps the OneWeb investment will encourage efforts like this potential ground-station service.

What about Bharti? Bharti Airtel is India's second-biggest telecommunications firm, holding about a third of its market with 320 million customers and they are Africa's second-biggest mobile operator with more than 100 million subscribers across 14 countries. They also offer Internet service in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Channel Islands. They obviously bring marketing and operating experience and a distribution channel with terrestrial Internet partners and government regulatory bodies in underserved nations to the new OneWeb consortium.

They also bring deep pockets. Bharti Enterprises is a global conglomerate with interests in telecom, insurance, real estate, education, malls, hospitality, agriculture, food and other ventures. Their ISP business in India faces fierce competitors, and they obviously believe in diversification. (They were previously an investor in OneWeb).

When they filed for bankruptcy, OneWeb attributed their failure to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the handwriting was on the wall before that. In Senate testimony on October 25, 2017, OneWeb's Greg Wyler said they would launch their first ten satellites in May 2018, offer service throughout Alaska by 2019 and cover the entire US in 2020. While they had 74 satellites in orbit by the time of their bankruptcy and had signed an ISP distributor for Alaska and Hawaii, they were not offering service in Alaska or anywhere else let alone covering the entire US and were having problems with Russian launch and distribution partners. Furthermore, SpaceX was launching more satellites each month than OneWeb had in orbit, and their launch cost was significantly lower. OneWeb was in serious trouble and having trouble raising capital with or without COVID-19.

Now OneWeb has the backing of a government and a strong developing-nations partner and I assume their deals in Alaska and Hawaii and other previous arrangements with maritime companies, airlines, and other nations remain in place. On the other hand, they need to launch satellites quickly and they face stiff competition. SpaceX has a clear launch advantage, Amazon and China have deep pockets, and Telesat has a geostationary-satellite base as well as assets in the north.

I don't know if they will make it, but I hope they do. Billions of people remain to be connected to the Internet, so there is room for all of these companies and competition is healthy.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University – He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com. Visit Page

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